Is the outsourcing industry really still that clueless about cultural issues? Or high time to change that record…

Brandi Moore: Self-proclaimed expert on "Outsourcing Culture"

We were woken this morning with a nudge from our friends at Outsource Magazine that one of their contributors, Brandi Moore, had dared to take a few pot shots at a report we produced earlier this year that looked at the promise of Latin America as a sourcing location (get your free copy here).   

While they were clearly hoping to stir up a little excitement on a Friday lunchtime, when someone wants to label a piece of research “painful”, it warrants a defense from the people who wrote it.  So who better than co-author and one of the most knowledgeable people you will ever hope to meet on the topic of Lain American sourcing:  Esteban Herrera.  Have at it Mr H….

In Brandi Moore’s “painful” interpretation of the joint research we did with Softek about Latin America as a sourcing destination, she manages to disparage an entire industry, ignore the facts, offer tired examples as brilliant self-aggrandizement, and demonstrate a poor understanding of her supposed field of expertise (culture). We often take a tongue-in-cheek approach to our coverage here, but we take the accuracy of our research and reporting very seriously.

As a Latino who spent exactly half his life in the US (Massachusetts, Illinois, Texas) and the other half in various Latin American countries (Costa Rica, Brazil, Mexico), and India (Bangalore), I feel uniquely qualified to comment on cultural impact in cross-cultural communication and work. And as someone who has had the honor of working for two outstanding members of the outsourcing provider industry (Accenture and Infosys) and worked on over 200 outsourcing relationships as an advisor, I have some clue about how culture impacts delivery. It isn’t clear to me that Ms. Moore has ever lived abroad as a professional, and she has never been responsible for service delivery from the provider side of our industry. She does, however, believe that her background in “forensic science” makes her qualified to comment on culture in outsourcing and why most of you seem to be doing it wrong.

Had Ms. Moore checked her facts, she might have saved herself from significant embarrassment. Let’s take some of her wilder assertions and compare them against reality:

1. The article implies that our research was written with American short-sightedness about culture. Had she checked her facts, she would know that the author is a subject of Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth, his team was British, Argentine (how’s that for cross-cultural collaboration—Falklands and Soccer, anyone?) and Mexican, and the whole thing was edited by a Costa Rican.

2. Had this expert on culture bothered to check the definition, she would know that culture is defined by Merriam Webster as:

a: the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations;

b: the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time;

c: the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization;

d: the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic.

Our report makes the simple but obvious point that shared experiences and values make it easier for communication across cultures. Ms. Moore dismisses the use of credit cards, for example, as relevant in a business culture. Each and every one of my banking clients who offshore customer service for their credit customers would disagree. But that isn’t even the issue, because people with experience will eventually understand both the concept and the process. One of the few correct assertions in the article is that it is ultimately what motivates people that matters. We agree, and it is obvious to us that Western societies have more in common in how they understand work, success, and collaboration, amongst many other things, which is exactly the point we made in our report. The fundamental, Judeo-Christian inspired societal values shared by Europeans and North and South Americans make them more alike, and more likely to understand each other, than when paired with other macro-cultures.

3. Ms. Moore’s article suggests that few if any outsourcers engage in any cultural training beyond “30-minute videos” for their employees. Bull. Companies like Accenture, Cognizant, Wipro, Infosys, and IBM all require cultural training programs of 3 weeks or more for their associates. Even more egregious is the assumption that outsourcers try to tell their clients their offshore resources are culturally identical to Americans (she limits her discussion to the US, though Europe and Asia are also large consumers of outsourced services). Nothing could be further from the truth. I just finished three days of final provider presentations at one of the clients we are advising. Each and every offshore provider (there were five of them) made it abundantly clear that cultural differences are real, they will impact performance, and they will take work. I wonder if Ms. Moore has been involved in the hiring of an offshore provider in the last five years or so.

4. If you understand outsourcing realities, you know that the article misstates the reality of outsourcing relationship dynamics: Ms. Moore says “clients don’t understand why an outsource team member doesn’t speak up because of power distance issues across the team”. This is one more version of the tired “when an Indian co-worker says yes, it doesn’t necessarily mean “yes” Please. I’ve been hearing that one for over a decade. It has some truth to it, but this is reporting? How exactly is this helpful to someone managing an offshore team? How does it help the offshore team understand cultural dynamics? The fact of the matter is that pushing back helps the relationship. Clients and providers understand this.

5. The most ignorant opinion I found in this article, and there were a few to pick from, was the following “It’s difficult for Americans to think about cultural differences because we subsist on the idea that everyone is the same. This idea powers American culture. Without it, Americans would find themselves in the same situation as Norway: confronting radical groups focused on identifying people that hold differing beliefs.”  Let’s look at reality:

a. What makes America great, in part, is that it is a melting pot and thus the most tolerant of all cultures. Not immune from discrimination, most Americans, in recognition that this is a land of immigrants and 235 years is but a short time in human history, accept that others are different. My guess is offshoring would not work in the other direction, with Americans serving Indian corporations, for example, because immigration has not been as big a part of India’s (considerably longer) cultural history.

b. The insensitive reference to the recent Norwegian tragedy illustrates a poor understanding of the reality of global terrorism. Perhaps Ms. Moore took the day off during the deadly attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Gifford’s life by an American  “focused on identifying individuals who held different beliefs”. Maybe she’s not old enough to remember the Oklahoma City bombings. Perhaps she missed Glenn Beck’s thinly veiled suggestion that the Norwegian students deserved the bloodbath for being at a left-of-center gathering. Norway’s problems are eerily similar to America’s problems, Ms. Moore. The ultimate example of cultural insensitivity may just be to imply that “my terrorists are better than your terrorists”.

Esteban Herrera, COO, HfS Research and co-author of "How Latin America Powers Global IT Delivery"

Had this self-described journalist bothered to check with the authors, or maybe just read the entire report, she would have known that we do not, in fact, equate business culture with Western products or TV shows. But we do acknowledge the reality that a shared experience, especially in the formative years in which we grow up, makes business collaboration significantly easier in our adult lives.

The field of culture in outsourcing is a very, very important one. Ms Moore helps shed light on its importance, but then destroys her arguments in such a way it may never get the attention it deserves.

 

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14 Comments

  1. James Doherty
    Posted August 13, 2011 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Very good response, Esteban.

    Our industry is still plagued by individuals who seem to think the business of outsourcing got stuck somewhere in 2004. The arguments you discuss here put many of these “tales of woe” to bed,

    James Doherty

  2. James Wheeler
    Posted August 13, 2011 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Wow – strong stuff!

    Spot on about the “30 minute videos” rebuttal. I haven’t seen those for years.

    Kudos for taking this on,

    James

  3. Ron
    Posted August 13, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    One of the great aspects outsourcing has introduced to US companies over the last decade is the introduction of different business cultures, the different work ethics and styles and the new global world we all operate in. Outsourcing suppliers have learned to do a pretty good job introducing this cultural change to its new clients – they realize the quicker the assimilation, the quicker the engagements start progressing smoothly. True, there are many complex circumstances and sensitive issues that have to be dealt with, but tarring the whole industry and American business with this brush of ignorance to culture is harsh. One of the reasons why so many of the Indian-based suppliers have so successfully grown their offshore business is because their clients actually have grown to like the Indian culture – and they have done a good job helping with the assimilation.

    Good thoughts – and well done for standing your ground!

    Ron

  4. Ajit
    Posted August 17, 2011 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    Very powerful indeed, in the new globalized world one can not ignore the relevance of the outsourcing industry. There will be cultural differences and i think indian organizations are taking the right steps to bridge the gap.Referring to point C (definition by Merriam Webster): the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization; if thats how we define culture, then its not impossible to bridge the gap anyways.

    I work for an outsourcing company in India and i relate to the values / goals of my client.

  5. Jim Walsh
    Posted August 17, 2011 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    I have little more to add than to second Ron, James D and James W. Thank you for your well written response. Thank you especially for taking on Ms Moore’s cringing remark about Norway. A lesser response would have steered well clear of that one, and I would have understood, but you addressed it directly and very professionally. Good work!

    Jim

  6. Peter Reynolds
    Posted August 17, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    I second Jim’s comments here – a warranted response, Esteban. I wonder if Brandi Moore will weigh in to defend herself?

    Peter Reynolds

  7. Posted August 17, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Well done Esteban!

  8. Posted August 17, 2011 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    Very well said indeed. I have been working with outsourcing firms in India for the last 6+ years and the way the whole business – etiquettes, values, attitude etc.. has changed, brought in a new dimension to the global market. Most people have learnt to adapt to the western culture in their professional lives and overall exceed client expectations. So what’s the big fuss.

  9. Posted August 18, 2011 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Thank you all for your support and understanding of the response. I see part of our mission here as making sure real expertise in any part of our industry gets recognized, and obviously I did not appreciate an article that felt to me very uninformed. The saddest part for me is that business culture is indeed a HUGE issue in outsourcing and it always has been, and we ought to be discussing it from an informed, constructive perspective that recognizes differences and makes the most of them.

    I’ve gotten no comments of disagreement yet (though I am sure there are some out there who do disagree) and only one private admonition for the forcefulness and snark of my tone. Those of you were offended, rest assured karmic justice has been served–a flight from Central America that was to take 3.5 hours and deliver me home on Tuesday night turned into a three day ordeal that got me back to Dallas this morning!

  10. Harshal Ambani
    Posted August 18, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Hasn’t HfS partnered with the Outsource magazine? Shouldn’t they be checking with you guys before wronlgy quoting/interpretting what you intend to suggest?

  11. Posted August 18, 2011 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    @Harshal… yes, we have a great partnership in place with Outsourcing Magazine. In fact, we have them to thank for alerting us to the original article by Brandi Moore suggesting we solicit a counter-post,

    PF

  12. Posted August 19, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Very detailed response Esteban, thank you for sharing your insights.

    Regarding one of your comments:

    >>> My guess is offshoring would not work in the other direction, with Americans serving Indian corporations, for example, because immigration has not been as big a part of India’s (considerably longer) cultural history.

    This is an interesting consideration, I am not sure that is the reason why, “in theory” Americans are more open to working with vendors from other countries, because we have a high level of immigration, but it is an interesting one to explore.

    What is the extent today to which Indian firms today outsource to Chinese companies? Or are they not outsourcing, but rather setting up their own offices in China? Is it the same situation with Indian firms outsourcing to Latin America? Are they outsourcing to a large extent, as well as setting up their own offices. I thought they were doing both but I wouuld love to hear your perspective.

  13. Posted August 20, 2011 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    @ Emmy, its is a great question. As Indian firms become global powerhouses in the services space, they have found a need to open operations in places like China and Latin America. The workforces there are relatively small, and I think they are struggling somewhat with integrating these operations. One provider told us, candidly, that their predominantly Indian sales force was resisting selling any other destination. I’ve cautioned Indian providers that they seem to be taking the American approach of the 60s and 70s to globalization–sending home country managers to run new market operations–with similarly disappointing results.

    This is a really thought provoking topic. I feel a research paper coming on! Thanks for the question!

  14. StanL
    Posted September 1, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Esteban – I think it’s time you step and say what you really think. Being a blatant right wing gun toting USofA nutjob, perhaps I’m being a bit harsh on your timid response to the original limp wristed blinkered philistine cultural pig ignorance piece, but unless you can become even more explicit if your numbered dissectionalization, I fear Phil will revoke your f-the-man research fellowship!

2 Trackbacks

  1. [...] In a recent article in Outsource Magazine (http://www.outsourcemagazine.co.uk/articles/item/4051-secret-agreements-on-culture-), Brandi Moore contested the ability of integrating outsourcing with local teams without ‘talking about the cultural differences’ and trying to find solutions. Esteban Herrera, COO of Horse For Sources Research, rebutted with this article http://www.horsesforsources.com/brandi-esteban. [...]

  2. By The defining outsourcing moments of 2011 on December 30, 2011 at 9:32 am

    [...] lets loose once more, this time at Brandi Moore’s revelation in Outsource Magazine that the outsourcing [...]

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