Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Technology for Collaboration Across Cultures

In my recent articles I had written about the challenges involved in working across cultures. The challenge of work collaboration across cultures becomes more acute as organizations grow and have operations across multiple geographies. Most companies respond by deploying various collaboration tools (mostly software tools). While these tools are essential to improve collaboration, the value of these tools will not be realized fully unless these address the complete needs of the organization.

For example at my previous firm, the initial challenge of collaborating across Sunnyvale office and Bangalore office was met with VoIP, Video Conferencing, Internet, Intranet, Shared drives and a Project workflow Management software. While these tools were useful in the beginning, but as the company expanded operations in Taiwan and Israel these technologies were not enough. We found out that people in Taiwan & Israel were not using these collaboration tools to the extent that was needed to maintain a standard level of collaboration. To get over this problem, the company deployed a knowledge portal and several other region specific Internet portals to help in Taiwan & Israel.

The Challenge

Collaboration across cultures is always a challenge. With the advent of multiple collaboration tools, collaboration has improved - but this is only a temporary reprieve. As companies grow in size, the need for collaboration increases and so does the complexity of the joint tasks. As the organizational complexity increases, companies tend to do one of the following:

  1. Deploy more tools and invest in newer collaboration tools
  2. Believe that existing tools are sufficient and refuse to invest in additional collaboration tools

Often times companies respond to this challenge by deploying more software, more tools and technology. Deployment of multiple tools - improves collaboration but beyond a point, increasing technical solutions does not promise a similar return on investments. The law of diminishing returns will apply to organizations - and the cost of maintaining these collaboration tools will exceed the return on these investments.

In my experience, Silicon Valley companies tend to favor the first option, while rest of the world tend to favor the second option.

Recently, I was involved in a case where a leading Telecom company in UK had deployed 23 web portals - all to do the same job. After some prodding, the program director decided to optimize this into a set of 6 web portals. This type of rationalization is very rare in the industry and the reason for it is quite obvious - there is no single department or a group which deals with improving cross-border, cross-site, cross-cultural collaboration. Most of the collaboration tools were deployed on ad-hoc basis and once they were deployed nobody ever reviewed its value or its performance.

At the same time, there was another IT services company serving the largest British telecom company - which had serious operational issues because the company had not invested in proper collaboration tools. This was the 7th largest Indian IT services company with more than 15000 employees spread over 6 countries - and the company had very few collaboration tools to talk about.

Few companies deploy collaboration tools on ad-hoc basis - any tool to overcome the current problem. This is done by individual groups and is independently of the corporate planning. The result is reinvention of the wheel, repetition of work and an endless list of collaboration tools which are rarely used. This leads to excessive investments and lower ROI.

Most companies are usually very reluctant to deploy collaboration tools - and will invest only if it becomes a critical bottleneck. Indian IT companies, manufacturing companies typically tend to work this way. Companies are scared to invest in things on which ROI is easily measured. As a result, these companies do not collaborate very well - resulting in poor performance, disjoint efforts and wasted resources.

In both cases the results are not optimal - thus resulting in lower ROI. The root cause for this type of problem in both the companies is surprisingly common. Companies do not have a plan or a process to review its collaboration needs and then develop a solution that is geared to meet those needs.

Current Collaboration Tools in a Glance

Today, there are several collaboration tools available for any company. Some of these tools are widely used such as Telephone and Emails etc. The following table lists the current set of tools that can be used.

Phone Based Tools

  1. Land lines with International dialing
  2. Cell Phones with SMS, ISD and email ( blackberry)
  3. Voice mail on land lines & Cell phones
  4. VoIP: Connect remotely or direct dialing
  5. Video Conferencing
  6. Tele-Conference facility
  7. Voice to Text transcription
  8. Digital voice recording
  9. Voice to Text Transcription services
  10. Video Broadcasting

Internet Based Tools

  1. Web based Email
  2. Shared Drives & mapped drives
  3. Microsoft Net Meeting or Web Ex
  4. Instant Messaging
  5. Microsoft exchange or Lotus Notes
  6. Company Web Pages
  7. FTP gateways & servers
  8. Knowledge Databases or portals
  9. Project workflow manager
  10. Issue Tracker
  11. Secured Internet Portals
  12. Microsoft sharepoint services
  13. CVS or revision control tools
  14. Podcasting
  15. P2P networks
  16. Intranets
  17. VPN
  18. Blogs
  19. RSS
  20. Wikis
  21. Online forums
  22. Chat Rooms
  23. Bulletin Board Service (BBS)
  24. Salesforce.com or web based third party services
  25. Social Networking web sites

The list of tools is ever growing. But the fact is that several tools are now available to enhance collaboration. The usage & deployment of these tools are beyond the scope of this article.

Challenges in Selecting the Right set of Collaboration Tools

Most organizations agree that they need collaboration tools, but the major challenge lies in selecting the right set of tools based on their needs and budgets. Often times, companies do not have a firm understanding of the organizational needs: Managers do not have a firm understanding of their organizational structure and organizational design, Managers do not understand the cultural differences within different parts of their organization, Managers do not understand the impact of collaboration tools on the organizational structure and employee culture.

The gaps in understanding results in either over/under investments in collaboration tools or lack of utilization of the deployed collaboration tools - which ultimately affects the nature of collaboration between various parts of the organization.

Deploying the right technology and the right tool is critical for the success of work collaboration. To illustrate this consider an example of British Petroleum. BP developed and installed a video conferencing system on all its oil rigs - this system was called “Virtual Teamwork”. Virtual teamwork stations platform stressed on the richness if the communication between and the company implemented the state of the art technologies (in 1993) to make this happen. Virtual teamwork platform consisted of Video Conferencing system, multi-media computer system, e-mail, desktop application sharing, document scanner, digitally shared chalkboards, video recording facility, groupware software - Lotus notes/domino, and Internet. Back in 1993, this was the state of the art technology. Even today, most companies do not have all the above collaboration tools in every single location.

This investment paid off regularly and handsomely. This system allowed BP experts in one location to troubleshoot problems on different oil rigs. When one of the rigs in North Sea had a problem - causing a complete halt in production, an expert from Houston was able to join the video conference and see the malfunctioning equipment visually over the video. He quickly diagnosed the problem and guided the site engineers through the necessary repairs. Without this Virtual Teamwork system, it would have cost BP lots of money - the cost of lost production was running at $150,000/day, in addition the expert had to be flown in to the oil rig on a helicopter - all this meant big savings for BP and higher operational efficiency.

Development & Deployment of Collaboration Tools

A common problem in developing & deploying collaboration tools is that the onus of developing and deploying these tools often falls on the IT department or the project managers or divisional directors. In all these cases, the people whom are entrusted with this task do not have a clear vision or strategy for their intercompany collaboration. This leads to ad-hoc deployment or non-deployment.

Often times, companies take great interest in developing and deploying a custom built collaboration tool. Once the tool is deployed, all the relevant employees are trained to use it - and then something stupid happens: forget to support the tool. As the organization grows & expands in other georgaphies, or when new employees join, they will not be trained on how to use the tool. As a result new employees or employees in other locations do not use this collaboration tool - and eventually the tool is discarded.

Another common mistake in deploying collaboration tools is that the tools are developed with only one language interface (mostly English) and the same tool is imposed on their subsidiaries in non-English speaking nations. People whose native language is not English will find the tool difficult to use and thus do not make full benefit of it. Ideally multi-site collaboration tools should have multi-language interfaces so that people from different cultures can make use of it. If multi-language support is not available, then the language used in the tool must be simple enough for everyone to understand ( if not, please provide a good thesaurus built into the tool)

Ideally, the person or department who is entrusted with this task must have a thorough understanding of the organizational needs, must understand the impact of culture on the usage of collaboration tools, account for cultural differences between various parts of the organization, account for the need for continued training and support for the deployed tools.

Closing Thoughts

Global business delivery, and global sourcing requires excellent collaboration between various business units. In the world of global outsourcing - either IT services or production or distributed production etc., the need for collaboration is now greater than ever before. Selecting the right collaboration tools is just the beginning. Deploying these collaboration tools, supporting and maintaining these collaboration tools is the biggest challenge. Often times companies fail to invest adequately for deploying various collaboration tools - and even when the company spends the money, it is not spent wisely. Companies often times fail to take cultural, language and operational issues into considerations while deploying these collaboration tools.

The key to success today is effective collaboration between various business units (this includes internal business units, business partners, and vendors). Collaboration tools are there only to help and improve the work collaboration. Without the right set of tools, the level of collaboration will never reach its full potential.

To successfully deploy collaboration tools, one needs to consider the cultural issues, organizational design, technical competence of the users, adequate training for the users and continued support of the tools.

Also See:

  1. Offshoring Requires Better Collaboration
  2. Collaborate to Innovate
  3. Challenges in Offshoring to India
  4. Challenges of Multi-Cultural Teams
  5. Making Multicultural Virtual Teams Work
  6. Managing Virtual Teams - Use of Collaboration Tools
  7. Build a Multilingual Web Site to cater to your Global Customers
  8. Virtual Scale - Alliances for Leverage
  9. Cutting Edge R&D in India
  10. Global R&D Network

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