There is no doubt that India has firmly established itself as a desirable outsourcing destination. Offshoring has been a common practice in the United States for nearly a decade. Initially, companies were looking for low cost alternatives to high US-based labor costs. Today, however, offshoring has proven to be an effective way to tap into highly skilled talent not readily available in local markets. Many companies look to India for projects in information technology, animation, medical transcription, call center or data entry, content creation and more. If you are tasked with the role of manager to teams in India, your success is dependent upon recognizing and addressing differences.
Drawing on our own experiences, we have established the 5 critical things you need to remember to get the most out of offshore teams in India.
Explain the project objectives and plan in detail. Your project processes are very likely different from those of the offshore team. You’ll need to agree on the processes to be used, and should surface any assumptions made by the offshore team at the very beginning. Confirm the time and resource estimates. Make sure the designated project team understands your quality expectations.
The level of understanding and alignment increases as you interact with the offshore team. Automated tools for change management and issue tracking will help to keep everyone informed and allow you to adjust for needed changes.
Design an iterative approach to the project that delivers results in a relatively short period of time. This enables you to test every aspect of the working relationship, builds shared experiences, and motivates all team members.
In every project, being able to communicate effectively is critical, yet it is always a challenge. Having project teams are on opposite sides of the world amplifies this challenge. Establish a communications protocol that works for all participants.
India is a country of multiple languages, most notably Hindi and English. You have probably discovered that more Indians speak English than the number of Americans who speak Hindi (or any other language of India). However, accents and comfort with speaking English may serve as a barrier. You’ll be surprised to see that most Indians have good written English skills, and prefer to communicate in writing. If email and chat are more effective than phone, then make them the primary means of communication. However, our experience has been that incorporating regular phone conversations into the communications protocol helps every team member improve to their speaking skills and “train their ear”.
By way of example, consider the experiences of an animation team in Hyderabad. This team’s well-oiled operation came to a grinding halt for upwards of an hour, when the character they were drawing carried a note which said its face has to show a ‘five o’clock shadow’! None of the artists knew what it could possibly mean and the work had no way of proceeding until the supervisor clarified matters. Given the time difference between the two countries, many hours of work were lost.
While every little girl on the planet may have memorized the words to “Let it Go”, most television shows, songs, and colloquial expressions are not global. Business direction should be explicit, and both sides should verify that they have a common understanding of the agreed upon course of action. Make no assumptions about how much of your context is relevant to your team or what your expectations from them are – talk them through it and look for any gaps and bridge them.
Your team may not be completely aware of the business context in which you are operating. Give them the context for the business need and how you propose to solve its requirement. Sometimes, they may not even ask you the right question, because they may not know that such a possibility exists. It helps to explain the total environment and context for your instructions. Be clear in your instructions and patient when they come back seeking further clarification. In fact, encourage questions.
Many years ago, I was interviewing an executive who was managing a software development center for a large consumer electronics company. The executive said, “They have heads around the world, but they act as though they only have hands around the world.” That comment has always stayed with me. Far too often, differences in accepted business practices or cultural norms are misunderstood, leading companies to miss out on the true value that can be realized through the use of an offshore team.
If the people you offshored the project to weren’t highly capable, you wouldn’t have selected them to begin with. Have them contribute to the project with their ideas. Always consult the team before you make a decision. Very likely, the offshore team has similar project experience, and you can learn and benefit from that. Be prepared to change your own processes, as it could be an opportunity to improve.
India follows a hierarchical system. This makes it difficult for some to open up to a superior and put across a counter-argument or say things like, ‘No, that cannot be!’ even when they know they are right. This may lead you to a dead end or require a total U-turn at a later stage in the project, missing deadlines and also wasting time, money and resources. Create a project environment that encourages innovation by letting the offshore team know you welcome their ideas for improvement. Otherwise, you may get only what you asked for in the specifications.
While it is important to solicit opinions, be decisive on the final decision. If you don’t close the subject with a clear direction, the ambiguity will result in wasted time and effort. The differences in time zones and miles make it more difficult for team members to seek clarification. The result: your team will get demotivated and lose confidence in you and the project.
The difference in time zones can be very attractive. A manager can make a request at the end of the work day, then return in the morning to find the deliverable completed. However, all too often a US-based company will establish agreements in which the offshore team works hours that significantly overlap the workday of the Eastern U.S., meaning that the team is working evenings in India. When a manager then makes a last-minute, short turn-around request, the team in India must put in long days. Their hierarchical culture may make many of them work without complaint through weekends, holidays, sickness and even honeymoon periods. But, tread with care as this assumption may boomerang on you when they decide enough is enough and exit en masse, leaving both baby and bathwater behind.
Similarly, be respectful of holiday schedules. India has more national holidays than the United States. Mark your calendar with your offshore team’s vacation times and calendars. Set reminders ahead of time to adjust your resources to deliver your project timely.
In the ultimate analysis, tracking cultural differences is a stereo-typed way of looking at human beings. Most people are unique individuals and hence, behave in unique ways. So you may take this whole post with a pinch of salt. Cultural differences and historical business practices do exist, but are constantly changing as we move closer to a global economy. Do not assume that everyone is the same. At the same time, don’t assume that everyone is difficult. The real secret to successful management of offshore teams in India is to work closely together, forging the two groups into a single team that has defined its own culture, objectives, business processes and style of work.
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