Culture can be defined as an integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, behaviour, values and practices that characterise a country, company or any other group. In simple terms, it reflects how we think and the way we do things.

People within a culture are able to understand the conscious and subconscious behaviours fairly uniformly and consistently. In that sense there is no barrier to overcome. But by its very definition, offshore outsourcing involves the interplay of different countries and companies, so the complex combinations of different cultural forces and the resulting barriers are at the very heart of the phenomenon.

How do these cultural barriers show up in projects? It all begins with communication, both written and verbal. Different styles of writing, etiquettes of addressing and choice of words impact how each side interprets the same text, how they react to it and whether they ‘get it' or not. What may be appropriate in one may be considered inappropriate, rude and offensive in another. This problem is actually quite prevalent even nearshore, and especially within Europe. Different accents, contexts, emotional states of expression, usage of slang and mannerisms like pauses between words and cutting someone off, directly impact understanding, interpretation and perception in verbal communication.

Keeping Mum

Then there is also something called Mum Effect - a state of non-communication. In their 2007 paper, Ramingwong and Sajeev of the University of New England in Australia, stated that the Mum Effect occurs when stakeholders who have information indicating a project is failing decide to remain silent and let the project continue. Their observations indicate that, based on cultural considerations, the risk of Mum Effect is higher in Asia than in the West.

These cultural considerations are based on the work of Geert Hofstede, a Dutch academic who surveyed thousands of IBM employees in more than 50 countries and developed five measures of cultural difference: power distance, individualism, uncertainty avoidance, long-term orientation and masculinity. Countries are scored on each measure, and plotting one nation's score against another's gives an insight into the cultural differences between them.

A few examples make illuminating reading: western countries like the US and the UK are more individualistic compared to the collective culture in Latin America and Asia; Japan is the most masculine while Sweden is most feminine; Asian countries like China and Japan score high on long-term orientation while western countries are more short-term oriented.

Richard Nisbett, a social psychologist, also found that easterners perceive objects holistically through a wide-angle lens whereas westerners perceive them in isolation, through a narrow lens with sharper focus. Of course, there are caveats in Hofstede's assumptions that IBM employees are representative of a country's population, that people from a country can be generalised and that the scores from a 1970s survey are still valid today. The conclusions have to be used carefully and at best should serve only as anchors rather than as absolute truth.

Apart from communication, cultural factors also influence behaviours and practices. Utkarsh Rai, author of Offshoring Secrets: Building and Running A Successful India Operation, highlights specific aspects of the Indian culture that show up while managing offshore projects - importance of workplace socialisation practices (often evidenced in the leisurely coffee breaks); importance of age, seniority and hierarchy; sensitivity to criticism; the mentorship -expectations from line managers; and the difficulty in saying no (in one of the companies I worked with, there was a common joke that when you ask a question ‘yes or no?', the response always comes back as ‘nes' - I am saying yes, but I mean no!)

These are in stark contrast with some elements of the UK culture - professional criticism can be quite direct; there is a distinct line between personal and professional life, the expectation is that yes means yes and not ‘nes'; to get the work done people don't mind crossing hierarchies; and there can be an overemphasis on process, productivity and micromanagement, often at the cost of morale, sense of freedom and commitment.

So it can be quite a challenge to get two sides that have an inherently different cultural context to work in harmony with each other. This leads us to the next question: what can we do about it?

Companies have adopted two routes so far: cultural awareness and culturally compatible resource deployment. Cultural awareness involves conducting workshops and sessions both onshore and offshore to make both sides aware of each other's culture. In fact, such sessions are now included as a freebie in many large outsourcing programs, though one must delve into the details to gauge their relevance and likely impact. The resulting practices include creating a well-designed communication structure; spelling things out clearly and without ambiguity; asking frequent confirmatory questions (‘are you clear?', ‘have you understood?'); allowing freedom while holding people to account for their commitments; encouraging employees' social interactions and so on can go a long way in bridging the barriers.

Culturally compatible resource deployment involves having local, native onsite persons manage the onshore client relationship or even having a culturally compatible offshore workforce (for example, the UK and South Africa). The two things to be kept in mind while doing this are, firstly, whether the cultural barrier is addressed internally within the service provider's organisation and, secondly, if the erosion of cost advantage is worth it.

Breaking down barriers

However, the above, obvious solutions may not be enough to fully address the barriers. Companies need to adopt three additional principles to truly achieve transformational results.

The first principle is that it is a two-way street. A director of a leading cultural training institute in UK once told me of an incident where his (not yet then) client in UK was complaining "the Chinese don't know how to work with us. The Indians don't know how to work with us". The director retorted: "Have you ever considered that you may not know how to work with them?" So it's as much about the onshore understanding the offshore as the other way round.

The second principle is that it takes conscious effort, intention and patience for cultural awareness to show up in our behaviour. There are two systems in our mind: System 1, the intuitive part, and System 2, the reflective part.

Our native cultural factors are in System 1, and when we learn about a new culture, it gets slotted in System 2. So unless we practise and reflect on the new culture, the intuitive aspect of our own culture will still be the only driver. Scientists have also found that our childhood cultural experience plays a major role in shaping the way we think and, as we grow older, the neuroplasticity of our brain actually reduces, making change much harder. So we have to consciously practise and reiterate the learnings.

The third and most important principle is that a shift in ‘individual' thinking is required. We normally listen to other cultures through our own judgements and prejudices. We have to be willing to let them go, to accept another.

Cultural training will not make much of a difference unless we let go. Smita Joshi, an offshore industry veteran and a leader of transformation programs, says that how we see other people and their differences is merely a point of view. And no one point of view is the only true or correct one.

Culture shapes our brain. Each culture brings a unique perspective to a problem. And the complex problems of today are best solved by combining these unique perspectives. So let's celebrate and leverage cultural diversity.

About the author:

Arpit Kaushik runs a business redesign company based in London called Crystals that "helps technology-centric companies get unstuck"