Few folks, especially those involved in a global business, want to be seen as a xenophobe. To avoid that perception, I suspect at least some people hesitate to attribute communication problems with offshore providers to cultural differences.
Whether or not they feel comfortable acknowledging it, however, many people see it as a problem. Sixty-seven percent of U.S. executives responding to an Accenture survey in late 2006 mentioned miscommunication arising from cultural differences as a primary cause of outsourcing problems. It's an old survey, but I expect the results would be similar today. And I bet executives from other countries would respond in kind.
ZDNet's Larry Dignan wrote about it recently, including some great links from TechRepublic, the SpendMatters blog and Vinnie Mirchandani's deal architect blog. A great example of culturally-related miscommunication from TechRepublic: While you may think "yes" means "yes, I will get it done right away," an Indian service provider may really mean "yes, I understand" or "yes, I'll do my best." It's a subtle nuance, but one that can lead to frustration or (worst-case scenario) outright anger.
Though widespread recalls of products made in China inspired plenty of angst in the West last year, much of it could have been avoided if North American companies doing business with China had been more cognizant of the country's reputation for what SpendMatters bloggers Jason Busch and William Busch call "intentional disingenuousness." (Some of them probably were cognizant, but chose to ignore it to avoid spending money on stricter quality-control measures.)
How to deal with these kinds of issues? An article from Vantage Partners' Joseph Bubman and Sara Enlow offers some great tips. (It also reaffirms the results of the 2006 Accenture survey I mentioned earlier. Vantage Partners' clients identified "different business cultures" as their top challenge in managing offshore relationships, ahead of staffing and different assumptions about the relationship.) I also like the way Bubman and Enlow point out that such challenges may arise from differences in organizational cultures rather than national cultures.
Noting that such differences can be difficult to recognize and articulate, they advise dealing with them at the onset of a relationship. Take a systematic look at how the two sides expect to communicate, make decisions and resolve disputes. Agree upfront on how and when "bad news" will be communicated, for example. They include a nice chart, too long to share here, with highly specific examples of some possible assumptions and agreed behaviors for all three areas.
They also suggest offering joint training, calling it "an excellent opportunity to establish common goals and vocabulary, providing stakeholders with a shared frame of reference that supersedes individual company differences and language barriers." Worth mentioning: All clients responding to a Vantage Partners survey who reported being "very satisfied" with their offshore relationships had used joint training.
Such training also results in a strong sense of team, which tends to reduce staff attrition, write Bubman and Enlow. Another interesting suggestion: One Vantage Partners client reinforces this idea by including providers in staff meetings and an organizational charts.