Essentials for outsourcing: how to tackle cultural and language barriers

“I confess a certain fondness for the old-style Wimpy’s with their odd sense of what constituted American food, as if they had compiled their recipes from a garbled telex.”

So mused US travel writer Bill Bryson in his 1995 book on the UK “Notes from a Small Island.”

When he first visited Britain in the 1970s, the nonplussed Bryson recalled his struggle to work out why the British would gingerly eat their hamburgers with a knife and fork. On this side of the Pond, we would dine on this novel delicacy – little fingers fully extended and napkins duly tucked in – as if we were sat next to a minor member of the Royal Family in the Savoy Grill.

Americans would simply grab the burger and wolf it down as though it were their last meal.

Same meal, same language, but a startlingly different approach.

As it is with burgers, so it is with outsourcing: beware of taking seemingly commonplace things at face value.

Not that people will easily believe this fact. You’ll often hear:

“Surely if we outsource to another English-speaking country – wherever it may be – that’s the battle won? We’ll save oodles of cash. It’s a no-brainer to me”.

Well no. Our own cultural is, in many respects, invisible to us. It just “is”. We rarely think about it.

No wonder this aspect of outsourcing is all too often ignored. Deal with the “legals” and everything else will fall neatly into place.

Again, no. Don’t let the similarities fool you. Cultural differences are likely to present problems when you least expect them. Not all of the time, but when you least expect it or, most probably, when you could well do without the hassle.

So here are two key ways on how to deal with the linguistic and cultural challenges of off-shoring.

Cross-cultural training

A good friend of mine in Switzerland has been managing a large outsourced team in India for many years. From experience, he notes:

“Good results won't be seen unless you can adapt and learn how to engage successfully across cultures. It's not just a case of “swapping” 1x $1000 a day guy to 1x $200 a day guy, but those who make the deals seem to think it is! ”.

He adds that businesses which want to successfully offshore, “Need to put measures in place to mitigate the side effects of the cost savings”.

A key way of doing so is to undertake cross-cultural collaboration training. This applies to both sides of the deal.

Not understanding how the other side works and why they approach tasks in the way that they do can have unexpected cost implications.

Some cultures, for example, vehemently dislike saying “no” as if they have some bizarre and painful allergy to this diminutive adverb. They will still say “no” but in a convoluted way that is unclear to our British ears. Do you know how to read between the lines, when “mmm, that’s interesting” actually means “no”?

Influential Dutch psychologist, Geert Hofstede, has been undertaking pioneering research in the field of national cultures for decades. Consider checking out his handy (free) tools to see how individual countries rank for key characteristics such as “individualism” or “uncertainty avoidance” (eg how do different cultures deal with the anxiety of not knowing what the future holds?).

Implement robust systems and processes

Another key to successful outsourcing is to ensure that all processes and systems are robustly designed. Outsourcing means that a business will be relinquishing control over a particular business function.

Therefore, new functions should be created such as handover points, ie when responsibility for a task transfers from one party to another.

There is nothing to stop such points being done over the phone. However, the potential for misunderstandings means that important ones are best dealt with in writing or electronically.

No matter how good an individual’s English is, speaking it is often much more difficult than writing or reading it. Build this fact into your systems. Where something is manifestly important, write it down or have an electronic record of it.

Don’t just look at the potential savings on your balance sheet and think the job is done. Understanding cross-cultural issues is not a pointless “touchy-feely” issue that can be delegated to a faceless minion in an unknown department. Implementing proper systems is not just some tiresome and bureaucratic “nice-to-have”.

Cultural and linguistic differences have the power to turn an outsourcing contract, which looks great on paper, into a quagmire of misery.

Get it right by spending time considering these “soft” issues and outsourcing can be a success for both parties.

PS. If you want to understand the difficulties that foreigners often have understanding us British, take a look at this handy guide to British English.

Filed Under: Practice of Law

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