By definition, outsourcing is a process that makes companies break a lot of their habits and established practices in exchange for substantial gains in other areas. If a project is being outsourced to a company within the same country, it is already a challenge, but when it comes to outsourcing a complex software engineering project overseas, it turns into a whole different story. A lot of ice must be broken first for an important piece of work to be entrusted into the hands of complete strangers who may not even share the same cultural code with the customer.
Cultural Differences Affecting Business Relationships
As in any relationship, difference between the parties can be a major disjoining factor. Time zone difference, difference in cultural backgrounds, dissimilar paradigms of values, traditions and ways of doing business may seriously affect the efficiency of an outsourcing engagement. Some cultures are prone to being very diligent within defined boundaries, but lack proactivity, which may seem to be fine initially, but gradually becomes a serious problem when the customer gets tired of managing the tiniest aspect of the project and spending too much time on this. Others demonstrate procrastination far too often and need to be guided and motivated all the time. Even regular communications can be problematic in situations where employees are afraid to report a problem to their managers (as the cultural code suggests) or when problems are hushed up for days to eventually become too serious to fix.
Language is naturally the most common obstacle that vendors need to overcome to establish a working relationship with a customer. Inability to speak the same language results in miscommunications and mishaps of all sorts, from incorrectly understood requirements at an early stage to disastrous deviations from initial designs later on. Therefore, good command of your native language should be one of the top reasons affecting your choice of an outsourcing partner. It would be naive to expect all team members to be fluent speakers, but your key contacts and the people responsible for project management or supervision on the vendor's side must be able to convey their thoughts and ideas very clearly and unambiguously. This is especially important for projects based on agile methodologies, such as Scrum, where daily stand-up's and multiple other regular meetings are an intrinsic part of the process and efficiency of communications within a short (and usually strictly limited) period of time is essential for yielding consistently good results.
Our experience with customers from various countries suggests that the best way to ensure good alignment between partners is to spend some time before any work commences discussing the general approach, the communications model, the environment to be set up, the meetings to be scheduled, and other details. These preliminary talks will give both parties an idea of general fitness for a partnership. The contract should contain a trial period clause for individual team members or, perhaps, the entire team – this makes the customer better protected against various odds, and serves as an incentive for the vendor to be proactive, fast, accurate and responsive during the initial period and beyond. However, no contract will ever be able to offset the difference of mindsets, so if you, as a customer, are looking for a team that will be close to you in terms of work priorities, time management, accountability and, of course, understanding your business pain points, you should be looking for a nearshore partner or an offshore one based in a country bearing some cultural similarities to your own one.
In general, however, any IT service provider working on the international market should be well prepared for potential challenges, and cultural differences should be taken out of the “fit-for-business” equation as early as possible, as being able to communicate clearly is one of the basic prerequisites for getting any contracts signed altogether. So have no doubts passing on programming gurus who can’t put a few words into a sentence, and yet don’t be fooled by the flowery rhetoric of marketing teams not backed by people who can actually get the job done. Follow the golden mean rule and look for a team that efficiently combines the best of the two worlds and appears to be fully able to become your trusted partner in software development.