No, Really! Cross Cultural Communication is Important

There are several ‘hurdles’ one will face when building and operating an overseas sourcing strategy.  One of the most formidable challenges that lies at the crux of many other issues, which I believe requires more people to stop and think a bit, is cross-cultural communication. 

Unfortunately, "cross-cultural communication" is also somewhat of a buzzword that Americans have been inundated with since who knows when, and by now, it’s something that sounds like a ‘wouldn’t-that-be-nice-and-fluffy-kind-of-concept’.  To me, it’s not something that you really ever get past (unless, perhaps, you’ve lived in another culture for decades).  It’s something that you are constantly working through.  Just last night, on the phone with an HP phone technician located in India, I caught myself interpreting a statement incorrectly.  I performed an operation on the computer as dictated by the technician.  Then, I asked him to repeat his next statement because I thought he was implying that I had lied about performing the previous directive in the amount of time I did it.  Then I turned my brain back on and realized there was no reason for this guy to imply that–just a communication mixup. 

Anywho, I often run into people who have tried to communicate directly overseas and grossly underestimate the importance of effective cross-cultural communication.  If I had a dollar for everytime I heard "They said everything was fine and there’d be no problems, but…", or , "she shook her head and nodded to my question, so I assumed…".  One of the problems with the many trading web sites and portals out there is that people believe that just because they can now search and email someone in another country who claims they can produce something, there isn’t much more to it.

A recent study by Accenture found that a lack of cross-cultural understanding is hindering effective global sourcing.  Based on a survey of 200 U.S. business executives:

  • 66% of the respondents had experienced miscommunication issues with their global sourcing partners
  • Offering cross-cultural training to their employees reduced the number of instances of miscommunications
  • Executives believe adopting cross-cultural communication training programs can increase productivity by 26 percent, on average.

Main factors causing problems between onshore and offshore workers are:

  • Different communications styles (76 percent)
  • Different approaches to completing tasks (53 percent)
  • Different attitudes toward conflict (44 percent)
  • Different decision-making styles (44 percent).

I wouldn’t be surprised if more than 66% experienced miscommunication issues.  The nuances and subtleties of understanding words, body language, behaviors, and more, are numerous and challenging.   Throw in the factors of working by phone (cannot see a person’s body language) or email (cannot see or hear someone) on top of the cross-cultural factor, and you have many chances for something to be misunderstood.  For those embarking, or already working with overseas sourcing partners, it might be worth stopping and taking a second to educate yourself a little more about what might come up with a given culture.  You will probably find very boilerplate resources on the net or in books that will help, but will only go so far.  It’s probably better to try and find someone who has been operating in that country for a long time and can share some personal stories and insights.  You might not care to try and fully wrap your mind around the intricacies, but there are things to take heed of that could impact your business.