Outsourcing and Global Communication

Anirvan Sen
Posted: 07/09/2012

Do you feel that there are more people with gray hair in the BPO industry? Whether this is true or not, BPO industry remains an intense industry and examples of emotional highs are plenty.

While there is plenty of wisdom available around emotional flashpoints unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of literature. Emotional flashpoints are tremendous threats to any relationship and the badly handled ones can lead to a break of engagement. In today’s complex world, where organizations are more integrated across geographies than ever before, we are faced with demands to operate long hours, work with people across several time zones, and understand accents that sound like a different language and have societal background that may be very different from what we are used to.

In the outsourcing world, "process" has always been king, whether it is finance & accounting, IT, or procurement; unfortunately, little attention is given to handling the anxieties of the workplace. While "process" gets documented with process maps and operating instructions, little is agreed on rules of communication, especially around volatile issues that could trigger emotional outbursts – whether an escalation of an issue or not reaching agreement on governance.

Communication is a huge topic and much beyond the scope of this article, so here, I have tried to emphasize cultural differences that manifest themselves through non-verbal communication.

Our normal vocal communication consists of two parts: verbal and non-verbal, which includes tone and body language. The verbal part of the communication is just about 5-10% and the majority of the communication is thus non-verbal in nature; let’s call it the "unsaid" communication.

Interestingly, in the globalized world today, people who can master these unsaid communications are the ones who are likely to be successful in relationships – whether outsourcing or marriage!

Increasingly, I find that non-verbal communication is significant when it comes to outsourcing and globalization; and that’s what triggered me to write this article.

In the conventional outsourcing world, we tend to be focused on the "process" part of the work; typically, this would be transactional processing work, whether for Finance, HR, or IT. However, when it comes to the overall engagement, we often fall short on communication, especially around the non-verbal communication. Holistically speaking, these components often make or break an outsourcing or offshoring relationship. In any transition, while "process" gets documented and transitioned with process maps and operating instructions, not much importance is given to the subtle nuances of the other elements of communication. Things like cultural differences (organizational as well as geographic), language accents, control, and management (including remote management) are often neglected.

Here are some aspects of non-verbal communication, as they impact outsourcing and globalization.

Control: Before an organization starts outsourcing, typically its control system is well-embedded through automated checkpoints or is an integral part of the human chain that controls the process. When processes get outsourced, historic controls usually get diluted, especially the implicit human controls, which are replaced by a perceived "arms-length" control provided by the outsourced company. People at the client organization feel that they face a black box situation shrouded in SLAs, metrics and other management stuff with the new controls. As several of these retained employees still have embryonic connections with the processes, they often feel betrayed and disenchanted with the loss of control. As they often perceive that their performance is linked to the performance of the process, a sense of loss of control manifests itself through emotional flare-ups.

As an example, let’s take the process to purchase new furniture. In any large organization, this process needs to go through sourcing, finance, the fixed assets team, and the IT department, to get approval. Under the conventional work environment, there are always people who control and monitor the flow, taking the wheel whenever something is out of place. So, if something was stuck in the system, it just needed a trigger from management and the concerned person would walk down the hall to that department and get the request back on track or expedite wherever was required.

Outsourced work, on the other hand, can resemble a black box shrouded in SLAs, metrics and other management stuff, thereby denying someone the flexibility to steer according to the need of the hour. (And by the way: this example is not to highlight the inefficiencies in a process but to highlight how people operate when faced with out-of-the-ordinary circumstances.) The world of outsourcing consists of people, and therefore, there is always going to be a human element, which leads to unpredictable behavior. That’s why it is a service and not a product. In the conventional world, the flow controller would use his inter-personal (not just verbal, but also tone and non-verbal) skills to keep the process on track. In an outsourced environment, the same work is now done through "procedures," as defined in the governance charter. And somewhere down the line, the parent organization feels that they have lost control of the processes. Contrary to popular belief, documenting the process well by itself does not lead to a good working relationship between parties, and understanding the non-verbal aspect of communication still remains an under-valued part of the relationship.

Language/Accents:

We live in a multi-cultural world and yet we often end up stereotyping people for their background or accent. While it is important to understand that differences exist, this takes a different tone when it becomes part of the sub-conscience and affects judgments, sometimes based on prejudices. When we hear people whose accents are different from ours, we often associate them with certain characteristics. A European may look at a commitment as an agreement whereas an Indian may interpret it as a firm willingness to get the work done. An Asian is less likely to argue with their boss in an open forum than an American. While these observations are based on personal experience, I would not say that one group is better than the other. In the conventional world, a Harry would perfectly understand a Sally’s need for urgency to meet a deadline; in the out-sourced world, Sally would find it hard to understand why Hari said "yes" over the phone even when he should have said "no". This brings us back to the subject of capturing and interpreting non-verbal communication.

Time-zones:

It seems that, biologically, our bodies are used to behave in a certain way when it is day and differently, when it is night. Usually, we sleep at night and work during the day. In the case of off-shored workers in India or the Philippines, they often work at nighttime to support the US or Europe. Hormonally, this may affect their behavior – especially in terms of body language, i.e. tone and the non-verbal part of your communication.

Calendars/Holiday functions:

As we know, when we get close to Christmas holidays or the summer holidays in July/August, we tend to have that extra bounce in our step. Around the Chinese New Year, there is a festive mood amongst Chinese communities; during Autumn in India, people marvel at Dussehra and Diwali; during Ramadan, the atmosphere in the Middle-East changes. However, when we off-shore work, these subtle nuances are often forgotten and the only thing we tend to focus on is getting the work done. Imagine if people were asked to work on Christmas day, or New Years, in the US or Europe. How would they feel? This is often transmitted through the non-verbal or tone part of the conversation. It’s easy to forget – but its impact will stay with the relationship.

Anirvan Sen
Posted: 07/09/2012

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