Outsourcing IT services is considered a valid organizational strategy that likely will continue, in one form or another. The obvious advantage to any business lies in potential cost savings, ideally leveraged to result in greater profits. It is tough to argue against a competitive business finding a way to legitimately increase profits. The savings may come from applying simple differences in pay scales as well as avoiding the expense of retooling or training in-house staff on new tools and technologies - such extravagances then become someone else's concern. Issues certainly exist with outsourcing IT activities offshore. Beyond simple security concerns that naturally arise with any work performed outside the corporate firewall, offshore outsourcing brings language and cultural barriers to the project management table. Additionally, the simple time zone differences become a larger-than-life factor of daily task administration.
As with every other business option, risks are real while presumed panaceas are actually chimeras. Outsourcers may be overselling their internal skills; inexpensive offshore expertise may really be on-the-job training as the outsourcers work through each new task for the very first time. Disruption can occur as work is transferred. External customers may fear what the changes will bring. Internal staff may believe that outsourcing threatens their future or their job satisfaction. At the very worst, unscrupulous outsourcers may siphon off an organization's intellectual property in a rush to provide industry-wise knowledge to other organizations from whom they wish to obtain outsourcing work.
Few IT personnel are positioned to make yes-or-no decisions about outsourcing a project. Instead, executives make judgments determining whether entire functions, products or services are outsourced for a given organization. A group of developers and other specialists integrate their efforts with the work of outsourced resources. These individuals constitute a unique collection of teams comprised of people from different locations. Those at each location must function cooperatively in order to achieve their goals. Under such symbiotic circumstances, success and failure become shared outcomes. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, everyone hangs together or else they most assuredly will hang separately. Yet despite the reality of this shared outcome, human nature tends toward emotionally dividing physically separated workgroups. A common attitude generated on many projects assumes those in an external location are apparently stupid, arrogant, difficult or something equally unflattering. The resulting attitude transpires much like on the television series Lost, where the castaways must contend with a different group on a different part of the island - the "Others." These Others are quite easily cast as so glaringly different that they can only be considered evil, or at the very least maniacally nonhuman.
Any workgroup develops its own identity based on the interactions of those within the assembly. Under any circumstances, having workgroups split between multiple physical locations is a significant challenge because distance truly is a barrier. This challenge exists regardless of whether the split is across town, across the country or around the world. Offshore resources are isolated from the local group by many factors, the first of which is the actual physical distance. The manifestation of isolation increases when adding differences in time zones, disparities in languages and culture, and dissimilarities in work environments, education and attitudes.
If offshore resources are controlled via a local manager through whom all information flows, a single-point-of-contact model, then the offshore workgroup becomes virtually invisible to the local work group. By this design, the distant workgroup is as unknowable as a black box, and the normal interactions that could create workgroup identity are unable to function in any effort to create a cohesive whole. The local group generally will see the outsourced personnel as strange and alien, and not just because there's only one point of contact. Under such conditions the nonlocalized resources naturally take the shape of Others, who do things following their own foreign desires and whims.
Add in concerns over future job loss, brought on by increased offshore work outside the organization, and even mild anxiety can escalate into strident animosity. The dangers posed by such attitudes will rise or fall according to the need for interactions and synchronization of tasks between local and outsourced groups. When a significant level of coordination is required, then the naturally occurring us-versus-them dynamics can easily spiral into project failure. Additionally, the more that this interlocation harmonization is necessary, then the less likely that using only this local, single-point-of-contact or black-box scenario is a suitable or appropriate arrangement.
The only successful mitigation strategy to overcome the rise of an us-versus-them mentality is communication - successful and constant. When people must interact frequently, true communication should result; at some point during the constant flow of communication, acceptance and understanding eventually will begin to take place. In truth, factoring in these interpersonal feelings takes time. The individuals involved in the sharing need to "see" each other in action so they can start to attain a level of comfort about the way the others think and react. Each must learn that they all have similar motivations and goals, yet this comprehension cannot be commanded. In reality, simply telling people to communicate does not mean they actually will communicate. Therefore, regular communication must be a key component of the daily workflow. And, more often than not, such communication will need to be formalized within the project methodology. At first, such meetings and discussions may be forced and awkward. Regardless of this awkwardness, the process must occur so that ultimately, discussions will become more natural. Each hand off, each checkpoint, must involve the disparate parties and require them to share their views and opinions on the matter at hand. Approving designs and brainstorming for solutions must be made into shared discourses.
Unfortunately, global communication is not free. Large organizations may have the luxury of picking up a phone and making unlimited calls (assuming the nonlocal team members are still awake) or may even approve any number of trips transporting individuals, or even teams, between sites. During some portion of the work day, part of the equation must accommodate scheduling to ensure that the workgroups have some time overlap.
Smaller organizations with more conservative budgets may need alternative communication modes that can substitute for travel or even telephone. Although email is certainly convenient and useful for many things, it is often cumbersome and somewhat unproductive for establishing rapport. Instant messaging may afford a suitable option for the communication function. While not as simple as picking up a phone, instant messaging is becoming an acceptable communication tool. The immediacy of response is slightly more satisfying than email. Once some commonality and familiarity exist between people across the workgroups, then improved attitudes and a semblance of group unity may have a chance to emerge.
A significant change in operations usually occurs in almost every circumstance where newly outsourced work is established within an organization. Natural stress and tension develop when generating any co-dependent workgroup arrangement. Left alone, this tension may diminish or intensify based on any number of possible influences. A single inept manager can poison the entire situation. Therefore, this is an occasion in which, metaphorically, a single bad apple can spoil the whole barrel. Assuming the relationship continues, lengthy recovery periods may be necessary to repair the contaminated situation. The initial stress temporarily blinds many to the basic commonality all people share. Cross-location communication helps one progress beyond that initial tension and return to the obvious understanding that, regardless of location, the circumstances are shared and all are working toward success on the exact same issues.
Not long ago, the U.S. was considered the melting pot of the world, as people from across the globe moved here to raise families and pursue their happiness, each contributing their cultures and styles into the societal stew. The world now is quite a different place. One could consider the Internet as another kind of melting pot delivered to the world, or at least to a significant chunk of the planet. With sufficient bandwidth, anyone in the world may be watching the current number-one video offering on YouTube. The real impact of such universal connectedness to our culture and to every culture probably will not be truly understood for decades. We may become a global village, with our individual ethnicities and heritages homogenized into a simple stew from that melting pot. Or the adage "familiarity breeds contempt" may erupt, and cultural polarizations and angst could sweep the world as groups' wishes to hold onto their customs, at the expense of any and all comers, fuel ever higher levels of international strife.
When feeling particularly pressed to reconsider the Others on your project team as not driven by evil intentions but simply trying to do a good job - albeit from a seemingly different perspective that may be either correct or uninformed - remember, these folks are equally challenged and confused by the actions taken by you or your local workgroup. After all, your local workgroup is the Others to them. If one must coordinate efforts with an offshore outsourced group, just hope that the outsourced team's language skills are good and plan on spending considerable time instant messaging. Nearly everyone wants to do a good job, regardless of where their work station sits on this planet. Circumstances are truly rare in which folks at distant locations are motivated by ill will; sociopathic tendencies exist in only a very small percentage of the world's population, regardless of what one sees in movies. Therefore, those who presume bad intentions from a distant workgroup are far more likely to be wrong than right. With a healthy and persistent flow of communication, multilocation workgroups have the best chances of cohering and truly banding together to contribute to organizational success.
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