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April 10, 2024

Culture is King: Ten Ways to Bridge Cultural Differences in Outsourcing Arrangements

If you’ve spent any amount of time working in an office, you know how misunderstandings and poor interpersonal relationships can turn the atmosphere toxic. And that’s when you are all on the same room and speaking the same language.

Now think about an outsourcing relationship, where your team mates are in another country, with a different native tongue, and cultural background. You may only ever see them through the frame of a video conference call and communicate primarily via a Slack or Teams channel, where nuance can quickly be lost.

It’s imperative then that any business looking to enjoy the many benefits of software outsourcing, takes the time to understand the cultural background of the team helping it get the work done from afar.




It’s About People

Because the success of your outsourcing project hinges less on software and technology, and a lot more on people and how effectively they work together. Technical problems can usually be overcome. But broke relationships and a lack of trust will quickly derail an outsourcing project.

In part I of this series, I drilled into importance of accounting for cultural differences when engaging offshore partners in software outsourcing arrangements. That was the philosophical, big picture stuff. In part II, I want to give you some practical tips to help operationalize this focus on culture in outsourcing partnerships.

Pretending you can avoid cultural differences in outsourcing arrangements is magical thinking. As Erin Meyer, author of the excellent book  The Culture Map, writes, the big outsourcing opportunities internationally are usually in emerging economies, such as India, Bangladesh, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Many of those countries have a fundamentally different approach to collaboration and decision-making that is rooted in culture.

“In nearly every case, these are cultures where hierarchy and deference to authority are deeply woven into the national psyche. The management orthodoxy of pushing authority down in the organization does not fit easily into the emerging-market context and often trips up Western companies on their first ventures abroad,” writes Meyer.

As I’ve written before, whatever side of the outsourcing relationship you are on, you come to it from the point of that view that “what we do is normal, what everybody else does is weird”.

That’s completely natural, we are only human. But understanding that this disconnect exists is important. To overcome cross-cultural barriers in software outsourcing partnerships, companies can adopt a strategic approach and operationalise it in the following ways:

  1. Understand cultural differences: It starts with recognizing and respecting the cultural nuances of the outsourcing partner's country, including language, communication styles, work ethics, time perception, decision-making processes, and social norms. Do your research, communicate key differences across the team, and have an open conversation with your outsourcing partner about how they want to conduct the relationship.
  2. Build strong communication channels: Establish clear communication protocols, use simple and concise language, and avoid jargon. I find it is useful to establish a glossary of terms that the entire team will use, a kind of shorthand for the project that everyone understands. Utilize collaborative tools for real-time communication and document sharing, and encourage regular updates and feedback.
  3. Language considerations: Ensure clarity in language usage and provide translation or interpretation services if necessary. Avoid idioms, slang, or complex terminologies that may be misunderstood. English proficiency varies between outsourcing destinations. At the very least, you should expect to have senior members of your outsourcing partner to be fluent English speakers. They will often act as translaters for other members of the team. Remember that your understanding of “agile” or “scrum” may differ to that of your outsourcing team’s. 
  4. Establish shared goals and expectations: Align everyone’s understanding of the project scope, timeline, and deliverables through clear project documentation (in dual languages if necessary) and regular progress meetings. 
  5. Build trust and relationships: Engage in team-building activities, organize cultural exchange sessions, and, if possible, arrange face-to-face meetings to strengthen personal connections. There’s nothing like getting on a plane occasionally and visiting your outsourcing team. As Accelerance CEO Andy Hilliard regularly points out, breaking bread with your partners in their town, immersed in their culture, is a powerful way to build respectful and trusting relationships.
  6. Embrace flexibility and adaptability: Agreeing processes and sticking to them is important. So to is being flexible. If the processes aren’t working for cultural reasons, gather feedback and input about how to best adapt them to suit everyone concerned. It could be accommodating different time zones by establishing flexible working hours and respecting cultural norms and holidays. 
  7. Foster cultural competency: Invest in cultural competency within the organization by educating employees about different cultures and being open to diverse perspectives. Provide training for your in-house team members to understand cultural differences, avoid stereotypes, and build effective communication strategies.
  8. Hiring bilingual staff: Employing bilingual staff who can bridge the communication gap and facilitate better understanding between teams can make a world of difference. For instance, if you have significant outsourcing projects in Latin America, it will be beneficial to have Spanish speakers on staff, with the language spoken throughout the region and an official language in nearly 20 countries and territories.
  9. Continuous learning and improvement: Encourage team members to expand their knowledge about other cultures, work styles, and communication preferences. As projects and programs of work progress, your team will develop their cultural competency, which will prove invaluable in future outsourcing projects.
  10. Know when to say sorry: Misunderstandings can and will emerge, potentially threatening the harmony of the relationships and the progress of the project. Address misunderstandings as quickly as possible. Don’t allow resentments to fester. If offence has been taken due to a team member being culturally insensitive, address it sincerely and openly, allowing everyone to learn from the experience, rebuild trust and respect, and carry on your collaboration.


By implementing these strategies, businesses can bridge cultural differences, enhance collaboration, and achieve success in their software outsourcing partnerships.

Accelerance does its part by helping you consider all of the above strategic factors when we help you establish a working relationship with your outsourcing partner.


Our Align workshops bring you and your outsourcing partner together before the work begins to help lay the foundations for a respectful and productive relationship. Contact our consultants to learn more about Align and ways to set yourself up for outsourcing success.

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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