The Logistics Behind Global Outsourcing

You’re probably not ready for global business expansion yet, but your company still touches areas outside of the U.S. Perhaps you get the best deal on parts or office supplies from a Mexican vendor. Or, maybe it’s more affordable for your software development company to contract out to programmers from Asia for some coding activities.

Offshoring some of your work can be cost-effective, as long as timing and communications are seamless. However, if you have concerns about home-based employees, just think of the challenges of working with people worldwide. Here are some tips that can help you reduce some major barriers.

Global Outsourcing

Some Considerations Can Help to Smooth Out Outsourcing Efforts

Always start global relationships with your eyes wide open. While you can’t absolutely avoid all challenges, anticipating the following issues can help you prepare for them.

Time zones can create sleepless nights

At least half of the world is at work while you’re sleeping. This can be good or bad, depending on how you plan for it.

I used to share writing projects with someone in Scotland. We could have experienced major difficulties by overwriting each other’s files and generally losing awareness of our individual progress. Instead, we formed a great partnership largely by taking advantage of the fact that we shared only three hours when we were both at work.

When I got to work, I called my partner so that we could share updates about any unusual circumstances that might affect activities after work transferred between us. Between daily updates, scheduled ownership of files, and great backup-and-restore procedures to ensure that none of our work was lost, we never had a single issue.

So, what happens when an emergency arises in a distant country while you’re in much-needed dreamland? If you absolutely must make sleepy emergency decisions, you can still take control. Provide only one or two trusted off-shore people with your super-secret phone number. If you know that you don’t make good decisions while drowsy, then call them back after you shake it off.

Language barriers are almost inevitable

If your British partner tells you that a vendor made a dog’s dinner out of a parts shipment, would you know that those parts are a mess? George Bernard Shaw said that Britain and America are two countries divided by a common language, so just think what happens when you work with someone for whom English is a second language.

Whenever possible, communicate in writing to provide reviewable documentation that permits dictionary lookups. Keep sentences short, and avoid the use of jargon that can lead to misinterpretation. Then, if you’re not sure about any meaning, go back and ask for clarification

Asking questions is even more important during spoken conversations. Never be embarrassed to ask someone to repeat what they said or even rephrase it (and invite them to do the same if they don’t understand you). Once you think that you comprehend, repeat it back to ensure that every detail is clear.

Calendars are not identical

Did you know that August 18th is Patriot’s Day in India? I can’t tell you if businesses are closed that day. But, if you use contractors in India, you’d better know whether they can meet a deadline on that day.

I searched for day-off holidays in other countries to learn about that date, but if you’re interviewing global companies, get a list of their days-off. In most cases, you can work around those days if you know about them. If you absolutely need work done on very specific days, however, holidays can be a game-changer. If they will cause missed deadlines, you may need to outsource from a different country (or choose someone who willingly works on major holidays).

Regard for cultural differences is a necessity

When you pay people to work for you, you expect them to bow to your culture. In the real world, however, cultural beliefs are often inbred; your contractors cannot always understand what you want — or why you’re acting a certain way.

Yell or (heaven forbid) swear at a contractor who lives in an extremely polite society, and they lose face. Send a yellow floral bouquet to a Mexican contractor, and it is seen as a symbol of death. Do your homework to prevent a massive faux pas. It won’t necessarily end your relationship, but it could profoundly affect it.

You may not share the same standards

My former employer started farming out print jobs to a Malaysian printer. Imagine my surprise when the first job (hundreds of hefty user manuals) came back printed on lavender paper —  and they couldn’t see the difference between lavender and white!

I learned an important lesson from that experience: never take any detail for granted. In my case, I had to send them a sheet of white paper to clarify my requirements. If you can’t send samples, then make sure that they fully understand your expectations. When possible, arrange for checkpoints where you can assess quality before project completion. Whatever it takes, never assume that people in all countries do anything the same way.

Understand That These Relationships Aren’t Necessarily Permanent

Once a project is completed, don’t let outsourcing hurdles stop you from celebrating. You earned it. But, unless every aspect of the outsourcing relationship was perfect, you need to conduct a thorough post-mortem analysis to figure out what to do better if there’s a next time.

Before starting another project, ask yourself questions like the following:

  • Have you fixed all past issues to ensure that future projects will go more smoothly?
  • Would the next project benefit by choosing a country that doesn’t pose the same language and cultural challenges?
  • Has the past experience completely soured you on the idea of trying to work with overseas partners?

As long as you haven’t entered into a long-term contract with an outsourced provider, then nothing is etched in stone. On the one hand, you may have resolved all past issues, and you are confident that future projects will go more smoothly. On the other hand, if you foresee major future irreconcilable issues, you may want to cut the cord. But be careful about switching from one contractor to another one, particularly in the case of programmers dealing with undocumented code. They seldom fully comprehend what is behind every detail in existing programs. If there’s any way to make matters worse with code changes, they will find it.

Consider All Options When Seeking Outside Help

I’m a big supporter of buying American, but it’s not always possible. Even though U.S. salaries are not rising as rapidly as the low unemployment rate might predict, don’t expect U.S. contractor rates to follow suit. Off-shore contractors are generally less expensive, and the low unemployment rate adds challenges when looking for any type of local help.

All of that said, the potential for inconvenience and errors can be costly, too, so keep that in mind when considering affordable local hiring options. For example, it might make sense to hire and train an intern from a nearby university when you can’t afford to hire a seasoned U.S. independent contractor.

As long as you and your team are alert to possible challenges — and you plan for them — off-shore assistance can bring your projects to successful completion.

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