IT-Outsourcing to India – culture shock guaranteed?

Recommendations for a successful cooperation with Indian providers

// IT-Outsourcing, IT-Strategy

Since Indian companies have, for a long time already, been successfully acting internationally as software producers, outsourcing deals have, in recent years, increasingly be awarded to India. In the day-to-day work of provider management, cultural differences become apparent that can make a successful cooperation considerably more difficult. German managers and administrators must be aware of these differences to do a good job with the Asian partners. Outsourcing expert Tamara Wagner of the IT management consulting firm noventum consulting has made remarkable observations in the cooperation with large Indian providers.

Many employees at German companies encounter Indian day-to-day culture for the first time via an outsourcing deal. Only very few Europeans have experience with it and are severely puzzled by in part fundamental differences. In addition to technical questions, different ideas of business culture time and again lead to confusion and - in case of insufficient preparation - hinder a smooth cooperation.

Countering Indian hierarchical expectations with clear role assignments

In India, hierarchies are significantly more important than at German companies. While tasks and the corresponding responsibilities can be delegated to experts in Germany, this is completely different in India. As such, it is, for example, typical that the colleagues with the highest position speak almost exclusively at a meeting and that colleagues at a lower level of the hierarchy do not contradict them or make suggestions of their own, even if they know better. This can lead to a situation where even German experts who are not on a hierarchy level that corresponds to the hierarchy level of their India counterpart, are not taken seriously. 

This behaviour can be countered by having the German (provider) manager introduce the individual colleagues and explain their roles in minute detail. This way, it can be clarified, for example, that they are speaking on the manager's behalf in case of certain topics and that they have his competency. Here, transparency and offensive role assignment are asked for.

Indian colleagues should not be assigned tasks that correspond to a lower work activity level. In such a case, the Indian employee will likely not directly reject the task, but also won't carry it out. Lots of sensitivity and good communication with plausible reasoning are asked for here.

Strict schedules promote project success

A very close tracking of all tasks is necessary to be able to cooperate with the Indian partner even in stressful project situations with tight deadlines. The closer the planned completion data comes, the tighter the control must become. This can lead to a situation where this is being inquired about on a weekly basis or even multiple times a day. Even if this runs counter to the local concept of independent work, this is a necessity, especially in the first phase of the transition. After having gotten to know each other more closely at a later point in time, the intervals can then be extended, depending on reliability. 

One important cultural background of this conflict-prone different handling of the factor time is a particularly fundamental one: Indians have a fundamentally different understanding of "time". In India, time does not pass, rather, it repeats itself. This understanding is reflected in a lot of areas of life. By borrowing from linguistics, it can be illustrated what this means. In the primary language, Hindi, there is the word "kal". It means both "tomorrow" as well as "yesterday".

Experience is relative

Almost half of all Indians are younger than 25 years. Many employees of Indian providers are technically well or very well educated but have hardly any life and work experience, yet. In a team meeting via video conference, it may therefore happen that one is primarily looking at the faces of people in their early 20s. Especially due to this lack of experience, it is important that good process documentations and training be provided and that the technical comprehension and the work results be verified regularly. 

It is also helpful if the technical main point of contact on the client's side is also young. This makes it easier for the Indian partners to ask questions. And they are less afraid of losing face. In addition, it is easier for both sides to develop a collegial relationship through the exchange of personal messages and to find topics outside of work. 

Always available? Working hours are an important topic

Even in terms of the working hours, there are differences between Germans and Indians. However, this aspect is more likely to cause confusion on the provider's side. In general, Indians have significantly fewer days of vacation and frequently also do not take advantage of them to their full scope. Vacations of multiple weeks are also highly unusual. In this context, once again the hierarchy is playing an important role – the lower, the less vacation is being tolerated.

Indians are surprised that Germans cannot be reached during their vacation and on weekends. To illustrate this, here is a short example from practice, told by a German provider manager:

"On Monday, a new workflow tool was to be introduced. But on exactly that day, the client's manager was also on vacation, so that a regulation for a substitute had to be established. We explained the facts of the matter to the responsible Indian party and he opined that this would not be a problem since the tool will be unofficially switched live already the Friday prior at 11 pm so that the manager himself would be able to handle acceptance of this. In addition, it would also be possible to grant the approvals via mobile during the vacation. Upon our comment that his vacation would already start on Friday upon leaving the office and that during this time neither reachability via e-mail nor via mobile would be ensured, the Indian colleagues were quite surprised and clearly indicated their lack of understanding."

A good preparation helps to defuse cultural differences

Sourcing consultants with corresponding experience at international companies time and again make the observation that cultural aspects influence their work just as much as commercial or business issues. A well-founded training in international project management is helpful for the project's success, as is the option to be able to rely on specialised consultants who prepare the local customers for their special situation with a coordinated workshop offer. 

It has proven to be very good for a collegial and successful cooperation if the Indian colleagues can visit the German company and if the German employees can also get to know the Indian provider and its work environments on-site. Also, such "travel activity" is not a luxury for employees from the line, but rather an effective plus for the day-to-day work. For optimal work results, these encounters should start with the transition and be maintained over the whole term of the contract. 

Intercultural cooperation is a permanent task

The large Indian providers did, of course, already adjust to the differences in day-to-day cooperation presented here. They maintain independent sales offices in Europe and this way make the conclusion of the contract technically and culturally compatible. But in practice new teams and new players become active on both sides and the communication process starts over. For a smartly prepared convergence of the differing business cultures suited to day-to-day interaction, the German customers find willing interlocutor in their Indian partners. You just have to address the topic.

In every partnership, be it personal or business, the willingness to understand each other is a permanent task. With experience and professional preparation, differences can be overcome. And, in the end, the experience that most of the time neither Indians nor Germans are merely a sum of the respective clichés, helps. Individual abilities and characteristics often diffuse the opposites and make the cooperation possible and enjoyable.

noventum consulting

Tamara Wagner

SENIOR CONSULTANT

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