When "Yes" Means "No" and Other Cultural Hazards

It wasn't until I had a long interview with Jane Siegel, the esteemed Senior Scientist at Carnegie   Mellon University, did I realize how profound an effect 'culture' has on outsourcing relationships.

Until my conversation with Siegel, I had viewed culture as somewhat of a 'soft' issue. First off, my contention has always been: culture is a 'nice to have', but when it comes to the hard-core delivery of IT and BPO services, cultural barriers are not insurmountable. In other words, there's nothing terribly disruptive to a few more phone calls or sit-down meetings in order to overcome any gaps around getting aligment between project owners and delivery partners. In other words, I believed, cultural issues are manageable.

In Siegel's view, however, culture is fraught with complication and can create severe, and sometimes, irreparable harm to sourcing relationships. Siegel has devoted her professional career to improving IT outsourcing quality performance and adherence to standards. Her bottom line view on culture is that it has paramount importance to sourcing success. It is a hard issue and should rise is importance as a fundamental consideration when engaging with third-party, strategic partners.

Siegel and I sat on a panel last week at the Latin America Outsourcing Summit, produced by the Colombia business chamber, ANDI, and this topic came up. Siegel noted that Colombians (as well as the rest of Latin America) have grown up in education systems where the students is encouraged to appropirately challenge prevailing thought - whether it comes from a textbook or the teacher's mouth. Students are encouraged to engage in debate, to question and to not take things on face value.

She pointed to how this system is different than other parts of the world - particularly Asia - where the authority of the teacher/ mentor is sacrosanct.  

My point here is not to argue whether either education 'system' is right or wrong. But what is fundamentally important is that in professional services relationships, the client is almost never looking for obedience and blind acceptance. Clients want push-back, they want to find a better way and they want a partner who will anticipate, on their behalf, when a project is going to go  sideways. The classic question is what does your sourcing partner mean when the say "Yes." Is that a yes, that means "yes", "no" or "maybe?"

The piece that I also believe is still missing to this equation is the ability to quantify the impact of culture on sourcing relationships. If it truly is a 'hard' issue, with significant productivity and cost implications, then it's time for the Nearshore sourcing industry to develop some methods and criteria for measuring the impact of culture on sourcing engagements.