Thursday, August 31, 2006

Improving communication with Indian Engineers

"Today, India is one of the most exciting emerging markets in the world. Skilled managerial and technical manpower that match the best available in the world and a middle class whose size exceeds the population of the USA or the European Union, provide India with a distinct cutting edge in global competition." Discover India

Today India dominates the world of IT services. Indian software engineers are now working on various projects for different clients - mostly international clients. Being an engineer myself and having worked in the USA and currently in the UK, I have seen engineers communicate - especially Indian engineers. Based on these experiences here are some tips for foreigners, mainly customers of Indian IT services, to communicate effectively with Indian Engineers.

Tip-1: Be Explicit

Almost all engineers who go abroad have few things in common: They are smart, intelligent and lots on new ideas. They carry considerable experience and have certain assumptions of the host country and its people from their past experience and other sources. If you are dealing with them for the first time, then you will also have certain assumptions and impressions about Indian Engineers.

The first essential step is then to check if those assumptions are correct. Both parties must quickly pick up clues on what aspects of their assumptions are wrong and what needs to be corrected. As a foreigner, the engineer may not be aware that you, as his customer, may be assuming things. It therefore helps to explain rather than imply about what your expectations are.

Remember that you are the customer or the collaborator - and your success is also dependent on their success. This means that you need to be explicit in all your communications with Indian engineers. It helps if you ask the questions:

"What does he understand about the business requirements?"
Engineers in general start working with a set of assumptions & guess works. They may not necessarily have a deep understanding of the customer’s requirements. It is therefore essential to ask the question and listen to the answers - And correct them where ever necessary.Never Assume that the other party understands.

"What do they (Indian engineers) need to be successful?"
Indian Engineers in particular do not have a habit of demanding things - if they do not have access to a particular resource, they will either find a work around or just ignore the problem. Rarely they demand for resources or information. It is therefore to your advantage to explicitly ask them of what they need during all phases of the project.

Document and explain your requirements in plain simple English. Often times I have seen American and British managers send a diplomatic statements. These diplomatic statements maybe misread by Indian engineers - it therefore helps to be straight forward when it comes to setting expectations or establishing the requirements.

Use templates for all reports and communication. As a customer, you can setup the template in which the project reports have to be submitted. I would encourage use of templates for emails as well - especially for routine emails such as weekly status, transfer of responsibilities, change requests, etc.

Tip-2: Time Management

Any visitor to a new country or on a new assignment will initially take more time than the locals to produce the same amount of work. It will be much better if you can tell the important dates and the expected deliverables on those dates. In addition, tell them how they might use your time - Give your office timings, what's the best time to reach you, and how to reach you. In short set the rules as to how your IT engineers can utilize your time.

Tip-3: Increase your cross-cultural sensitivity

Remember that both you & Indian Engineers are likely to start with certain assumptions. Some of these assumptions will be rooted in standard stereotypes based on the person’s nationality, religion & culture. Stereotyping a person tends to lead you into false assumptions - and can be dangerous. While stereotyping has its benefits, it is always better to know about the person’s culture and behavior instead of relying on stereotypes. Asking questions and listening to the answers allows you to check out assumptions and generalizations and to increase your cultural awareness.

Exploring what others think and do will help you to identify your own rules, assumptions and conventions. Because our own cultures are so implicit in all we do and think, we can only become self aware by getting to know how others’ cultures deal with the same matters. This will help you to be explicit in the way described in Tip-1.

Tip-4: Teach ‘Western’ business communication skills

Most Indian engineers that you meet might have been working in your country before - and few will even have substantial work experience as well. But if you are managing a large IT project, you will see several engineers who are either fresh out of college and are traveling abroad for the first time. It is in these situations, you need to play the role of a "teacher" and help them learn the standard business communication techniques when dealing with you, your colleagues and your company.

In my experience, I found it to be mutually beneficial. As a teacher, you will learn their communication styles - and also help you know them better & overcome the drawbacks of stereotyping. And for engineers, they will learn to communicate better - thus saving time & efforts for everyone.

Some of the key points Indian engineers must know are:

  • Expressing their personal opinions
  • Ability to paraphrase and summarize others’ words and ideas
  • Use of referencing rules and conventions in business communication
  • Structure and order an Business/Technical argument
  • Analyze and evaluate different arguments and positions

Note: Do not be over-enthusistic and impose a strict learning regime either. Use your judgment and don the "teacher" role only when required. At the same time do not shy away from teaching others the basics of business communications - as it will cost you in terms of wasted time & wasted efforts due to miscommunications

Closing Thoughts

A normal trend in Indian IT companies is to train their engineers on certain business etiquette before they are sent abroad. But often times, engineers skip these training sessions due to various compulsions. And even when these training are held, the training program is inadequate - Usually a half-day session is provided. So I recommend American & European managers not to assume things and take a proactive role in improving their communication with Indian engineers.

Also See:

Teaching an Engineer how to Write

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