Here are my notes from the International Collaboration panel at the Society for Technical Communication conference.
Moderator Alan Houser – He’s had one day of calls with people in four different countries. Asked questions of the four panelists:
Rahul Prabhakar – Samsung currently, PC/Mac US edition, has a global mailing list, knows Korean language
Bogo Vatovec – from Slovania, lives in Berlin now. Slovenia is so small, he needed to work on international teams. Consultant for program management for different international situations
Joe Sokohl – Keene consultant, works with many varied-location team members, lived in Germany
Pavi Sandhu – Oracle doc manager in Bangalore who has started a pubs team from scratch
Q: When project is at inception, 2 scenarios – building a team up, or having a team built for you. Is the first more rare, if you have the choice of assembling your own team, what are your strategies?
Joe – we do both, some projects require location or citizenship esp. for federal US Govt consulting. There are also reasons to drive business to another shore.
Pavi – has experience building a team from scratch since he was building one in the early days before there were experienced technical writeres available in India. All the usual apply – find smart people you can train, but in another country, the criteria and testing might be different for finding those people.
How can you find a person who is equal to another in another country? You really can’t, you have to invest. You may need more experienced in another country designing and architecting, then writers who are less experienced pull the document together based on direction from the more experienced, comparative to manufacturing process. Task decomposition might be more important on an international team.
Q: How do you judge capability in an international environment?
Pavi does interviews, writing tests, editing tests.
Rahul – mentioned that recent grads might have tech com degrees from texas tech or u of georgia, but other universities might not offer it yet, waiting for the profession to mature in other countries. He believes you compare oranges to apples.
Bogo – feels assembling an intl team is like assembling a team from different companies. Team assembly only happens by talking to the person’s boss or on the phone, you can’t recruit an individual, you are only recruiting for a deliverable – so Pavi’s manufacturing scenario may need to be applied. Matching the deliverable – will the deliverable get done with the team in place.
Q: What are some effective strategies for working with intl teams? Agreement on deliverables, other strategies?
Joe – cultural awareness – unsuccess starts immediately at the initial meetings, must take stock of cultural norms, what can we affect, what can we reflect. If you host a 3:00 afternoon meeting EST, it’s 12:30 am for Bangalore, make sure you get agreement.
Bogo says that you should have respect, not necessarily understand all their cultural background. Don’t let it ruin your respect (personally and professionally) for the person.
Rahul – apart from respect fctor or getting on the same plane as other person, think about, what will it take to get things working? He learned Korean to communicate with engineers – how far are you willing to go to get the job done?
Joe – learned just enough Hindu to be able to greet, and respond, and that was enough to prove he was interested in learning about the other culture, don’t be arrogant, have some humility.
Rahul – also know about India – lots of people in India are very well-versed in the English language. He wanted to know how many people in the audience have had trouble with the speaking of Indian English.
Pavi – anectdote about language skills – that language skills are often not on par – need a process for quality control – largest circulation of English newspapers are in India (wow). Writers and editors work together, you may not get “soup to nuts” from a single writer in India. Interesting story – there were grammar and quality complaints about a manual, but when they noticed the change bars indicating what had changed when, it was the US-written content that had complaints about quality/grammar.
Alan – mentioned Adobe India which has outsourced all dev and writing to another country, full control over a segment of the companies’ product.
Bogo – problems with language is not the language itself, but the meanings of the words. Specs, when you ask for something, is it understood in the way you wanted to communicate it? Even native speakers can have misunderstandings when it comes to certain concepts.
Q: How important is face-to-face interaction?
Alan – feels one face-to-face meeting is needed, that is extremely valuable, and likely only one is necessary. Can be expensive, but seems critical.
Bobo – thinks just one face to face is not enough, you need to go out and have a beer with them. The relaxed informal setting will help build trust for later interactions. Some social events or interactions make a big difference.
Joe – There are certain personal questions that are not culturally acceptable, such as marriage status, or religion (got a good chuckle when he started asking the audience members whether they are married or what religion they are).
Rahul – story – asked a Russian writer if she had an arranged marriage, since that was what he was familiar with, she was offended.
Pavi – it’s expensive to have people fly back and forth, but even one meeting a year helps you get a sense of the person.
Joe – how effective are you with meeting technology that lets you collaborate, show your screen, talk to each other. Corporate culture may dictate the collaboration levels as well as country culture.
Questions from audience – human side, what are some strategies for dealing with culture expectations when talking about quality, deadlines? Our dischord is dijointed expectations for when work is due or what work needs to be done.
Pavi – over communicate, make sure you have a lot of meetings in the early stages of the project.
Joe – look out for “our process is right because we invented it” – make sure that you can adjust your process if it’s not quite right.
Bogo – be sure you clarify draft status, clarify what time zone that deadlines are in,
Rahul – let people know what reviewers are necessary
Bogo – don’t necessarily lean on literal interpretations “I understand” may mean just that they heard you, not that they agree with the expectations set. Some cultures don’t want to say “I don’t understand” because they are afraid you’ll think they don’t know the language. It’s not easy.
Pavi – assume nothing, overspecify, clarify, clarify.
Q: What tools have you found to be effective for collaboration?
Alan – large company in India, they have US-based area codes for phone
Pavi – webcams and Skype have been very useful, also once a month they do video conferencing with the team
Q: Questioning the quality of doc from India writers in Calcutta, they have standards in place, but the quality isn’t measuring up from the India writers, can they revisit and revise their hiring standards? What qualifications should they be looking for?
Pavi – start at the beginning, so likely the hiring was not done correctly. Make sure you can be involved at all stages. Even if you inherit a team. What certifications/qualifications? Pavi said it’s tough to evaluate even 2 people on their skill level. There are communications programs, but you need independent measures for language skills and technical skills, it doesn’t matter what degree they have.
She hasn’t been to India, but her manager has.
Joe hirers “freshers” – new people, in order to train them they way they want. Still in tech writing and usability expertise, it’s tougher to find high quality.
Bogo – key message, don’t assume bad quality because it comes from a certain country.
Question from a trainer – do I trust the written feedback or verbal feedback on training courses?
In Germany, informal mentoring and coaching goes farther than stand-up training. They won’t tell
What about turnover, retention – and what when the dollar costs are too high to stay in India? They used to have 11 writers, now when they lose one in India they do not backfill in India but rather in US.
Bogo – demand outstrips supply, hence the turnover rate. Develop a strong culture in the company so they feel affinity, loyalty to the company, respect for the management, that they’ll feel growth and challenging work. 10 is the minimal size for a team in India to keep them.
Q: What about Agile? How much are you using Agile?
Bogo – not a problem if you can adjust the setup as needed.
Pavi – Sometimes it’s just not going to work, and that’s okay. No guarantee that it will be successful, just like a local team.
Joe – Soon the adjective “International” will disappear, and it will just be projects instead of international projects.