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March 22, 2024

Bridging Cultural Gaps: Achieving Effective Collaboration in Software Outsourcing

 Starting from the shared understanding that cultural differences exist and need to be accommodated is crucial.

One of the richest and most rewarding parts of my job at Accelerance is the opportunity I get every day to talk to and collaborate with people from different countries and cultures all over the world.

Software development outsourcing is a 40 year-old industry that has grown up in the era of globalization. So you’d think we’d be adept at understanding and accommodating the cultural differences between individuals and teams working together across time zones and languages.

The great tools and platforms now available to us mean that it's never been easier to write great software than it is today. But it is still hard. It’s technically hard. But mainly, it’s hard to get people on the same page, a cohesive team working towards the same shared goals.

In the 17 years I’ve been working with offshore outsourcing teams I’ve seen some great successes, but some disasters too. The projects that fail rarely do so because of technology. They go south when relationships are dysfunctional, when partners and their customers are not aligned, and when cultural differences aren’t adequately taken into account.


In her book The Culture Map, management consultant Erin Meyer explains that many of us are now part of global networks, connected with people scattered around the world.

Local Culture, Global Interaction

In her book The Culture Map, management consultant Erin Meyer explains that many of us are now part of global networks, connected with people scattered around the world.

“Yet most managers have little understanding of how local culture impacts global interaction. Even those who are culturally informed, travel extensively, and have lived abroad often have few strategies for dealing with the cross-cultural complexity that affects their team’s day-to-day effectiveness,” writes Meyer.

I give a copy of The Culture Map to participants in Accelerance’s  Align workshops, which we host for customers and their outsourcing partner at the start of an outsourcing engagement to find common ground on how we will collaborate, the shared vocabulary we will use, and the processes we will put in place to ensure success.

Meyer’s work explores how different cultural approaches to organizational management and decision-making (top down vs consensual, egalitarian vs hierarchical etc) have major consequences for how globally distributed teams function. We see this manifest itself every day in our work at Accelerance, where our primary role is to broker relationships. 

Americans tend to decide to work with another party based on their track record of delivery. In India, and the Middle East, prior relationships are crucial. Why is that? Because in the US, we have a strong legal system. If a dispute arises, we have recourse to the law (ie, we can easily sue each other). 

Many other countries don’t have as strong and trusted a legal system, so by default, people rely on working with who they know - extended family, friends and existing business partners.

Americans can be quite transactional. We focus on deliverables, contracts, and schedules - the what rather than the why. Europeans are more philosophical, keen to explore why a project should be pursued, with everything else flowing from that.

In Eastern Europe, the highest-paid person’s opinion usually carries the day, there’s an ingrained deference to authority. We recently worked on a project where we attempted to flip that norm on its head. We asked the most senior person on the project to speak last in meetings, letting the rest of the multidisciplinary team have their say first.

We Are Normal, They Are Weird

Everyone was puzzled and slightly bemused by the request. But it achieved the desired outcome - we got to hear a range of ideas from smart developers who otherwise may have simply deferred to their manager’s judgment. The manager saw value in that.

It boils down to this: What we do is normal, what everybody else does is weird. That’s the subjectivity we have to overcome to enable high-performance collaboration in the world of outsourcing. 

How do we make decisions? How do we collaborate? How do we manage conflict? Getting these things right takes careful consideration. 

Too often, software firms do some discovery work with their customer, have some technical meetings, and then jump in and start developing. We don’t even talk about software in our Align workshops until we’ve established how we are going to communicate with each other. We establish a type of glossary for the project that transcends language barriers.

Recently, a customer came to us to express deep frustration with their outsourcing partner based in China.

“They’re not being up front with us! They aren’t delivering what they are supposed to. The code is garbage!” The customer fumed.

Communication Breakdown

When we looked into the matter, we found a serious breakdown in process and communication that had its roots in cultural differences. 

It was like having a plane landing at an airport that has two control towers, each attempting to direct it to a different runway. It didn’t help that they were using a simple ticketing system to communicate key information with each other.

Outsourcing projects frequently run into impediments because the people involved make assumptions about what is appropriate. Factor in distance, timezone, and language differences, and you have the potential for things to go very wrong.

Usually, the big problem is that we don’t do anything to address issues arising from cultural differences until the actual problem manifests itself in the form of slipping project timelines, budget blowouts and damaged relationships. By then it is often too late to right the ship.

Starting from the shared understanding that cultural differences exist and need to be accommodated is crucial. Building and maintaining cultural competency in your team, whatever side of the outsourcing relationship you are on, is something that needs an ongoing focus.

It’s worth doing, because the benefits of software outsourcing in terms of cost savings, the ability to scale developing capacity as needed, and accessing expertise and sources of talent, are more compelling than ever in a globalized world where the vast majority of software development is undertaken outside of North America.

In part 2 of this series, Tom Cooper offers his tips on how to accommodate cultural differences on a day-to-day basis in your software outsourcing partnerships.

Get in touch with Tom Cooper to find out more about Accelerance’s Align workshops that bring together your team and your newly outsourced partner’s team to learn how to best work together effectively and efficiently.

Tom Cooper

Tom is a leader in Accelerance's consulting practice for global software development outsourcing. In this role, Tom leverages his extensive experience as a former software developer who was an early adopter of agile techniques, and as a leader of development teams to help Accelerance clients develop great software,...

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