Communication is the key to a project’s success, and while that may sound like a cliché, it holds a fundamental truth. We are privileged to have the most advanced tools and technology to communicate efficiently across countries and time-zones, and doing so has never been easier. But communicating is not just speaking or listening. More than 2000 years ago, Epictetus said that ‘we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak’. In other words, being heard and understood are not the same thing, and the difference could harbour a potential catastrophe.
This is especially true for big IT project implementations. When stretching across countries for international business ventures, implementing a solution another group has developed, can become an enormous dilemma. Even straightforward functionality that works onsite, can turn out to be more complicated as teams are separated.
Co-ordination and planning
First of all, it will always be difficult to coordinate meetings. Beyond that, face- to-face interaction picks up far more on unspoken information than distance communication, thereby giving cross-continent teams a natural disadvantage. It is difficult to spot slight dissatisfaction or misinterpretations, which could have been addressed before they create tension.
Workforces in an agile environment, who are accustomed to developing solutions and estimating new work every fortnight, will certainly need extended planning sessions when people from multiple time-zones are involved. Even more so, when the teams span oceans, cultures and languages. Many people find that global work splitting is inefficient, as waiting for instructions, decisions or a piece of code from the other side of the world is not only costly, but unproductive.
Even if your international employees or partners are completely fluent in English, they won’t necessarily be able to pick up on the unspoken customs nor the knowledge the local team shares. To be more realistic, English is often the second or third language for most international teams. This means you need ample time to convey your needs to ensure that the non-local team understands and absorbs these. In most cases the original development and implementation period doubles or triples, and this needs to be taken into account right from the start for overcoming logistics and communication challenges.
Work ethics and culture
In order for team members to have access to one another across times zones often means that either team has to work beyond normal hours. A relatively minor thing, such as re-scheduling a meeting may compel some people to arrive at the office earlier or stay later. This could result in overtime, managing unusual work schedules and finding employees who agree to work under such conditions.
Some cultures are rather reserved and not as expressive as we are. The consequence thereof is that they may not be comfortable explaining their confusion, or cannot articulate when expectations are unrealistic. Other issues that we completely overlook are holidays, customs and domestic norms around tolerable work hours.
Typically of all things global, the important thing is flexibility. But what is not always clear is that the flexibility regarding times and schedules will most certainly fall on you and your pocket, as more decisions are delayed, messages are muddled and people are exhausted. A global business initiative appears to be a bit of a fashion statement, and planning this can be very different from living it.
In closing, when it comes to working with international suppliers or IT solution providers you should ensure that these three things are in place:
- Have an action plan for coordinating and planning
- English is not enough, make sure you get their lingo too!
- Understanding the implication of work-ethics and culture is like planning to get married – it doesn’t sound so difficult. But building a lasting business relationship is like making a marriage work, and that is a completely different ball-game.