Offshoring: Coping with U.S.-India culture clash

North American companies could see better results with India-based outsourcing engagements if they take culture into consideration

U.S.-based companies could experience fewer benefits from offshoring engagements if they don’t tackle cultural challenges upfront.

Sending IT jobs to Indian offshore service providers won’t deliver the cost-saving results North American companies want if U.S.-trained managers ignore inherent cultural differences between the two workforces.

Industry watchers report that many U.S. companies experience a culture shock of sorts when working with Indian employees educated and trained there, and often American businesses don’t immediately enjoy the expected benefits of an offshore engagement. The reason isn’t a lack of motivation, intelligence or effort on behalf of India-based workers. In fact, analysts say Indian workers are extremely ambitious and often job hop for more pay, causing the attrition problems many offshore providers are currently experiencing. Instead U.S companies run into management problems due to a deep cultural divide between North American-based businesses and the Indian talent pool.

Read a review of "Outsourced," a romantic comedy that takes a look at how one U.S. manager must adapt to Indian culture. 

"Many North American businesses offshore for cost savings and labor arbitrage, and that can pay off. But there are many challenges meshing how Americans perceive work should get done and how Indians work," says Mindy Blodgett, a research analyst at Yankee Group. "Americans in particular expect a lot more initiative, independent thinking and pushback from their workers -- for instance, everyone should be thinking of better ways to work together -- and Indian culture is much more focused on process and procedure and strictly following the established steps along the way."

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For instance, Blodgett explains Americans typically work against deadlines and will change how they approach work when worried they may miss a deadline. An Indian employee might not veer off the set workflow and ultimately miss the deadline because the way work is done is perceived as more important than the time constraints put on the job. "American business culture is results-based, get the work done sooner so we can do more work and raise the bottom line," she says.

Indian culture also often calls for putting relationships before business, says Amy Tolbert, principal of Concord Multicultural Services, an IT staffing and consultancy firm that specializes in building global teams. Typically, Americans would meet and "get right down to business" and discuss more personal topics when business is finished -- which often doesn’t happen because there is another business function that becomes more critical to the U.S. worker. But a traditional Indian gathering of managers and employees or business partners might put more emphasis on the interpersonal relationships upfront and address business as a secondary priority.

"Americans are task-oriented. It’s about getting the work done. You don’t need to like your co-workers or have personal relationships with them as long as you all get the work done on time together," Tolbert says. "India is a more relationship-based culture, in which they will do business with someone they trust without a contract. That seems appalling to litigious Americans who assume you can’t trust the person, but if they adhere to the contract you can work with them."

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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