Project communications in offshore projects--best practices and lessons learned

Abstract

Modern day IT project managers are challenged with the task of delivering projects with project teams that span across continents. Projects delivered across the globe can be of varying sizes, but the problems with project communications are the same in every project. Project communications challenges are not just limited to crosscultural practices, but are also present with reference to resources, technology, security and project scope. Managing communications across the globe requires managers to be sensitive to cultures and to establish or evolve communication processes in line with the project progress to ensure project success. This presentation discusses in detail the tools and techniques used by a project manager to manage the complex task of project communications across the globe. The best practices and tools used by his project team are not very common in project management. This presentation examines the effectiveness of the tools he has used, how they are customized for particular projects, and how this customization is critical to the project success. This presentation doesn’t prescribe methods of communications but provides practical tips and tools successfully deployed by an organization to innovate in the process of project communications. Effective communications within the project enables the project team to innovate, which is critical to the continued success of the project. This approach enabled the project manager to deliver highly complex projects on time, within the projected budget and with a simple implemental solution, “Making it Easier” for the organization. Project communications strategy continually evolves with the project and managing that process is one of the critical success factors for a successful project management professional.

Introduction

According to Upadhye (2007), “Today, 73% of Fortune 2000 companies say offshoring is an important part of their overall growth strategy. Gartner predicts worldwide offshore spending will reach $50 billion in the year 2007.”

Such a statement highlights the criticality of a comprehensive and integrated corporate IT offshoring strategy, and the direct bearing that execution of that strategy will have on any corporation’s growth and bottom line.

Traditional IT offshoring programs center on application development, application maintenance and infrastructure services. Today’s IT program manager has the added tasks of working within the corporate offshore delivery model and managing the global development and support teams, and delivering the expected cost savings and business value underlying the corporate offshoring strategy.

This presentation highlights the numerous and varying factors that contribute to the success of any offshore project, as presented though this program manager’s captured best practices and lessons learned.

Typical Challenges of Managing an Offshore IT Project

According to Hatch (2005), “Moving offshore is a major operational paradigm change. Project management style, issues, challenges, and pace will all change for your onshore team.”

As is with any paradigm change, managing that change requires detailed understanding of the potential impact to the organization and its stakeholders. Such impact could vary from newly extended employee work hours associated with working with an offshore team, to morale and communications issues across the program team. Failure of any IT program, whether executed by means of an offshore or onshore delivery model, typically is rooted in common IT- or business-related delivery issues and constraints. With an offshore program though, the “remoteness” associated with managing a global team presents a fundamental challenge to the program manager: visualizing the details of the work being performed. This challenge alone may reduce the confidence of the program manager, the program team and the business stakeholders. These factors result in offshore outsourcing programs placing an even greater premium on efficient planning and controls. There are greater risks associated with the offshore projects.

Core challenges and risks associated with managing an offshore IT program include:

  • Lack of shared social context between the project teams
  • Need to establish and enforce processes around project governance, management and communications required to provide transparency within the offshore services
  • Need to facilitate teamwork and efficiency through active management of perceptions relating to culture and people.

The challenges listed above cause anxiety by the way they bring in the fear of the unknown. A lot of challenges can be overcome by understanding the framework of the offshore project.

Framework View of the Offshore IT Projects

A lot has been said about why and how IT offshore programs succeed or fail. Babu (2006) details an offshoring management framework that collectively represents IT services and roles that are commonly executed within an offshore program. Babu attempts to address some of the most common managerial issues and challenges, and his framework may be used as a frame of reference for planning projects spanning geographic and cultural boundaries.

Framework View of the Offshore IT Project

Exhibit 1 – Framework View of the Offshore IT Project

Exhibit 1 identifies Babu’s four layers of the offshore project. The importance of each layer to the project success is defined below:

  1. Governance Layer—Executive management, who sponsors the project
  2. Management Layer—Middle management, who runs the project
  3. Project Execution Layer—Where the work actually happens
  4. Communication Layer—Medium by which all of the above layers integrate to deliver the project

Communication is the binding layer for the successful execution of any offshore project. The project manager is the hub of communications and that person’s ability to communicate globally will determine the success or failure of the project or program. As we all know, the number of communication channels increase as we increase the team members, and communication complexity increases with geographical distance.

Presented topics within the following segment include:

  • How to apply the PMBOK® Guide principles of communication management to ensure project success
  • What are the communications challenges in the offshore project
  • What are the cultural differences between the U.S. and India
  • Best practices and lesson learned in communicating with offshore teams

Applying Project Management Principles in Offshore Project Management

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge Project Management Institute, 2004) provides detailed processes for managing communications within a project environment (p. 221). These processes are scalable and work well for managing the offshore project. Project communications management processes provide critical links between the associates working for the project and the information relating to the projects:

  • Communications Planning—Identify the stakeholders and information that needs to flow between the project teams onsite and offshore.
  • Information Distribution—Plan and identify the methods of information distribution. Typical distribution channels include the project shared drive, e-mails and the communications methods by which the offshore team would like to receive project-critical details such as scope/requirements and project design/architecture reviews. Common methods could include one-on-one reviews with the requirements analyst and the offshore project manager or participation in the requirements elicitation meetings.
  • Performance Reporting—Use offshore project reports to communicate overall project progress to the various stakeholders and to emphasize the risks associated with not complying to the defined schedule.
  • Manage Stakeholders—Identify the stakeholders critical to the project success at offshore sites and distribute the performance reporting. This ensures that the right level of understanding of project progress is available to all levels of the offshore project management.

Project Communications Challenges

Henry Ford said, “If there is any great secret of success in life, it lies in the ability to put yourself in the other person’s place and to see things from his point of view – as well as your own.” (ThinkExist, 2006)

Henry Ford said this even before offshoring as a strategy was in place. This is very true even in the 21st century, where the business models have evolved. As is with any other interpersonal skill, communication is a challenge in fast-paced environments, with their various interfaces, corporate complexities and matrices of relationships.

It is always challenging to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. It is also challenging in the case of an offshore project team. The challenges here are mostly due to:

  • Differences in culture and business etiquette
  • Differences in time zones
  • Finding the best time of day to communicate

Culture influences anywhere from 25% to 50% of our attitudes (class, race, gender, religion, age and so forth). Culture is also one of the five risk areas that Gartner says organizations must think about before going offshore. From the above statistics, we can appreciate the importance of culture in the project communications and hence the project success.

The sections below discuss cultural differences between the U.S. and India and how each influences day-to-day interactions that influence the project. The objective is to provide insight to the cultural context in which communication happens and what can be done to improve the communication.

Understanding Culture

Hofstede (2005) measures the cultural compatibility between various cultures using the following indexes:

  • PDI (Power Distance Index)
  • IDV (Individualism)
  • MAS (Masculinity)
  • VAI (Uncertainty Avoidance)

Hofstede explains how the various factors defined above are critical to understanding and communicating between cultures. Exhibit 2 gives a graphical representation of the various indexes and their relative scores between the U.S. and India.

Cultural Comparison between US and India

Exhibit 2 – Cultural Comparison between US and India

PDI (Power Distance Index) – the PDI score relates the degree of equality or inequality between people in a country’s society. A high PDI score indicates that inequalities of power and wealth exist in a country, whereas in low-scoring countries, there is more social equality.

In a country with a high PDI score, one might find the following:

  • The relationship between senior management and subordinate is rarely close or personal
  • Those in authority openly demonstrate their rank
  • Subordinates are not given important work and expect clear guidance from above.

IDV (Individualism) – the individualism score is the degree to which a culture values and reinforces the importance of the individual as opposed to the group. A high-scoring country will view individuality and individual rights as critical. Low scoring countries will value the group, such as the family or tribe. In a country with a low IDV score, one might find:

  • The rights of the family (or the common good) are considered to be more important.
  • Rules provide stability, order, obedience.
  • “We" is more important that “I”

MAS (Masculinity) – Masculinity is the degree to which a culture reinforces the traditional role of males and females. A high-scoring country will have a more acute degree of gender differentiation, whereas in low-scoring countries there is less differentiation and discrimination between genders:

  • Personal questions are general rather than intrusive.
  • In business dealings trust weighs more than projected profit margins and the like.
  • Nepotism is seen as a positive and people openly show favoritism to close relations.

VAI (Uncertainty Avoidance) – uncertainty avoidance is the level of tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity within a culture. A culture with a high uncertainty avoidance score will have a low tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. This is shown by the culture being more a rule-oriented society that institutes laws, rules and regulations. A low-scoring country is less concerned about ambiguity and uncertainty and is less rule-oriented, more ready to accept change, consider new ideas, and take more and greater risks. Countries and cultures with high VAI usually:

  • Have a long history
  • Have a population that is not multicultural, that is, it is homogenous
  • Avoid risks in business, even calculated ones
  • Have difficulty introducing new ideas and concepts.

Understanding the cultural components of communication gives program and project managers valuable insights into how they can improve their team’s attitudes and relationships with cultures different from their own.

Best Practices

Leverage the Organization Hierarchy and/or Processes

The best practice here is aligning the offshore and onsite teams in a way that binds the organizational (Vendor and Customer) Software processes together to ensure transparency and manage stakeholder communications.

Why Is This Important?

One of the many ways to counter the effect of cultural issues on the project communication is enabling of the organizational software processes. Organizational Software Processes range from heavy overhead to slight overhead, depending on the level of process maturity of the contracting organizations. The goal of using these processes in the context of project communications is to provide transparency and accuracy of project status, the absence of which is what causes most conflicts with the offshore vendor.

What Does It Take To Achieve This?

Most of the offshore vendors claim to a have high level of organizational software process maturity in the CMMI. For a project manager, any organizational software process leverage that can be obtained on the offshore team is critical to ensure transparency in the offshore software processes. In order to leverage the organizational processes of the offshore team, it is beneficial to understand the various models and the benefits they can bring to the project.

In a culture where processes and procedures are considered more important, it is critical that the project manager obtain and use this process leverage. Process leverage will benefit the project delivery and is critical to project success. Revisit the aligned processes at a defined frequency, such as every quarter. This quarterly review helps the project teams learn form the past three months and adjust processes as needed.

Why Is It Successful?

Any communication with the offshore team should take into consideration the hierarchical structure of the offshore organization and its value to onsite program success. This approach requires change in the way the project manager communicates with different organizations and with different teams. Managing communications in a hierarchical culture implies leveraging the organization hierarchy for effective communications. Offshore program managers are typically more senior than other team members and have had prior experience in working with Western cultures and corporations.

Effective processes are critical to the success of any offshoring engagement. An example of this is to communicate with the senior manager, who is normally a person experienced with multiple cultures. Knowing the senior manager in the offshore setup increases the leverage you can make in any environment, particularly in hierarchical culture such as in India.

How Do You Do It?

  • Understand the offshore project Software processes at the start of the engagement

    • Understand the offshore vendor’s certification credentials

    • Ask for a presentation of their software project processes Align the software processes with customer/onsite practices

  • Understand the deliverables that are produced as part of their quality processes

    • Ask the offshore project team to include the onsite processes in their project plan Establish direct communication with the senior management teams offshore

    • Ask for the project sponsor from the offshore vendor side Establish a quarterly meeting with the executives

  • Establish direct communication with the senior management teams offshore

    • Ask for the project sponsor from the offshore vendor side

    • Establish a quarterly meeting with the executives

Metrics to Measure the Success of These Processes:

  • number of ideas generated by the offshore teams for overcoming project challenges
  • number of process deviations reported by the offshore teams
  • number of reviews with offshore executive teams

Proactive Communication

Proactive communication is the process by which the program or project manager takes ownership of delivering the message to the offshore team and ensures that there is understanding between the offshore and onsite teams.

Why Is It Important?

Lack of common understanding of the project’s tasks and context is one of the reasons why offshore projects fail to deliver the value to the customers.

What Does It Take To Achieve This?

Take the initiative in communications. It takes two people to communicate. Change your perspective in communications and ensure that the message has been entirely understood. Explicitly state your assumptions. Ask for explicit statements of their assumptions also. Don’t get frustrated. Every communication starts with trust. Measure the actions and not the presumed intent. Plan enough time for the offshore team to absorb the details. Allow overlaps between the working hours to ensure the communication flow is smooth between the teams across time zones. The project manager should ensure that communication happens.

Why Is It Successful?

Being proactive in communication enables you to understand the perspective of the offshore team and communicate along the same lines. This provides the project manager with insight in the project’s progress, and hence, the confidence to handle the pressure from the onsite executive teams. This proactive behavior encourages open communications from the offshore teams.

How Do You Do It?

  • Be patient in communications

    • Take time to establish relationships with various team members and leaders

    • Understand the cultural perspectives involved in communication

    • Allow adequate time for the information to sink in with the offshore teams

  • Train onsite teams about the importance of cross-cultural communications

Metrics to measure the success of this practice:

  • Number of times the requirements clarifications happen in the project
  • Number of questions raised by the offshore team during the discussions

Affirmative Trust with Appropriate Verification

Affirmative trust is the practice of placing faith in the offshore team even before fully knowing them. It is critical to believe that the offshore team is there to support you in achieving the business goals and your success. This will allow the program manager to engage in constructive discussions with the team.

Why Is It Important?

Humans are always the unknown. Not having a clear understanding of the offshore team’s delivery capability and work ethics provides mixed emotions for the program or project manager. This have negative effects on person’s decision-making ability. Negative feelings always bring negative results in the work environment.

What Does It Take To Achieve This?

“Trust but verify,” said Ronald Regan at the height of Cold War. Trust in interpersonal communications is critical to the effectiveness of the communications in a distributed project environment. Trust has to be accompanied with a level of verifications. Trust and verification provide the program or project manager with increased confidence and support project decision-making processes.

Verifications can be in the form of validating the deliverables through reviews and testing, or getting a recap of progress from the meetings. In an offshore culture where “the boss is always right,” giving orders and taking orders may give a wrong sense of comfort in meetings. Interactions of this type are likely to result in failure to meet project deliverables.

Define and design iterative methods to improve the deliverable’s quality. It’s always a best practice to have the interim deliverables provided to you. Ask the offshore teams to review the requirements and provide feedback. Ensure that offshore process documents, such as quality review documents, are visible to all who need them, so process reviews occur at the right levels.

Why Is It Successful?

This practice covers both the interpersonal aspects of the communication and the metrics of project deliverable quality. Having affirmative trust ensures that you are able to handle the feelings raised among onsite team members toward the offshore teams. As we all know, most of the challenges with offshore projects are more due to cultural perceptions than to what is actually occurring in the project.

How Do You Do It?

  • Communicate the overall program objectives, achievements and statuses to the offshore project team
  • Be supportive of the offshore team in meetings
  • Ensure that metrics relating to deliverables are discussed with clear responsibility; for example, when discussing the number of defects, clear responsibility should be given relating to reducing defects
  • Provide the right visibility into any quality issue for the offshore team

Metrics To Measure Success of This Practice:

  • Number of times the offshore team has met the expectations
  • Number of issues reported onsite about offshore deliverables

Lessons Learned in Communicating with Offshore Teams

Personality Clashes

Personality clashes are one of the primary reasons for any project team dysfunction. Personality clashes occur irrespective of the nationality or the location of the teams. The primary reason for personality clashes is a lack of effective leadership skills at the project management level. Differences in behavior styles, attitudes, beliefs and opinions are some of the sources of the personality clashes.

Overly Assertive

“Assertiveness means the ability to express your thoughts and feelings in a way that clearly states your needs and keeps the lines of communication open with the other” (Ryan & Travis 2004 p. 224). However, before you can comfortably express your needs, you must believe you have a legitimate right to those needs.

Assertiveness is different from aggressiveness only in the eyes of the person with whom you are communicating. If the receiver of the communication feels that the communication is aggressive, it probably is. Perceived aggressiveness toward the offshore teams always results in reduced project deliverable quality and increased project conflicts. Aggressiveness normally generates negative emotions in the receiver. In a culture where groups play a more vital role than the individual, it is very important to address the team with appropriate sensitivity.

Conclusion

Program communications must be as dynamic as the people and processes associated with any offshore delivery model. Communication challenges within and across a global team are unique and multifaceted, yet the continued growing corporate dependency on the offshore delivery model requires program managers to learn from offshore success stories and develop a customized strategy that best suits their program needs. This presentation strived to highlight such best practices and lessons learned, while detailing pragmatic steps a program manager can take to incorporate such real-world experiences.

References

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© 2007, Arunachalam Krishnasamy
Originally published as a part of 2007 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Atlanta, GA, USA

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