Intercultural Training in Outsourcing – How to Bridge Cultural Complexities to Create Inclusive Global Teams

By Wolfgang Messner, Clinical Associate Professor of International Business at the Darla Moore School of Business, University of South Carolina

A multi-national company had just signed a multi-platform, multi-year, and multi-million dollar deal with an outsourcing provider from India. They knew it wasn’t going to be smooth sailing all along. Yet, the projected medium-term cost savings were just too enticing. The outsourcing provider promised that they would never have to directly deal with anyone in India; the onsite team would channel the information flow, and act as a cultural buffer.

It Takes More than a Smartphone App

The company’s HR director didn’t quite buy it and insisted on an intercultural intervention ahead of the offshoring adventure. “Well, if you insist, but don’t make it too expensive,” the business owners told her, “we can’t waste our developers’ time with soft skill trainings when we need to get our development processes in place.”

After considerable Google-based research, the director narrowed in on a tool which promised to boost subscribers’ cross-cultural communication, negotiation, and collaboration capabilities, not only with India but with another 100 countries across the globe. Just before a meeting or a phone conference, one could quickly rehearse the most important business practices on the smartphone app.

By answering a couple of questions, it would also establish one’s own cultural tendencies and compare it with the target country’s cultural profiles and go on to develop strategies to manage cultural differences. The program looked not only great on paper, but was also neatly implemented and integrated across devices. Everybody downloaded and registered (because it was mandatory), many employees gave it a try (thanks to internal marketing), a few completed the learning path (they were busy with real work), and only a handful kept referring back to it (the negotiation tricks didn’t do the magic). And people started struggling with their new outsourcing partner, just like if they hadn’t received any training at all. Quite disappointed and under questions from the business owners, the HR director wondered what went wrong? And what did she spend all her training budget for? Should she better have hired a real trainer? Or is intercultural communication just good for books, and doomed to fail in practice after all?

Should you Shake Hands or Nod?

If you have watched a YouTube clip on working in global teams or surfed the web for cross-cultural tips on how to communicate, negotiate, and collaborate with people from half-way around the world (or simply across the border), the odds are high that the focus was on how to do things in another culture, how to greet your business partner, whether to shake hands or just to nod, how to hand over a business card, and how long to look at it before putting it where exactly? And should you leave some food on the plate in a restaurant, or finish everything off? Knowing these differences in expected behavior is useful information for international sojourners and desk-diplomats alike, it provides a sense of security in unfamiliar surroundings.

If your source for intercultural information was a bit more erudite, it would have talked about differences in communication style (like Germans are low-context and direct to the point, Indians high-context and face-saving, and Americans somewhere in between), argumentation (principles-first and deductive in Germanic versus applications-first and inductive in Anglo-Saxon cultures), or leading (top-down through authority in India versus participative in much of the Western world).

Training Stereotypes

And if you have ever attended a training on the subject, chances are high that the trainer neatly packaged and explained these differences with cultural dimensions, most likely relying on the research by Geert Hofstede (going back to data from the 1960s and 70s), the GLOBE study (a bit more recent with data from the 90s), the Schwartz values (continuously updated but not publicly available), the binary conceptualization of time personality by Edward Hall, or one of the many other academic efforts to measure and compartmentalize culture.

If we ignore the criticism of stereotyping and oversimplification, what such self-assessment tools really get wrong is that national averages can’t be compared with group averages or individual traits. Indiscriminately hopping between levels of analysis is called ecological fallacy, and this methodological mistake ultimately nullifies any insight. That brings us back to square one, everybody had a good time attending the training, but nobody became any smarter in working with the Indian outsourcing provider.

Having realized this dead end, more sophisticated trainers cite the iceberg model of culture and move from the observational level of cultural behavior to the cultural values, norms, and attitudes that drive such behavior. They go into great detail linking religion and mythology with business behavior to explain why people are different. Very few intercultural trainers have actually lived and worked in the target culture they are teaching. Those that have may cover topics like differences in industry dynamics and career management in their sessions.

For example, since opening of the Indian economy in 1991, the country’s services sourcing industry witnessed an uninterrupted headcount growth, at times 25 percent per year. What does this mean for the Indian employee? Careers are no longer built on technical excellence, but on one’s ability to integrate new hires into ever-expanding project teams.

Notwithstanding, even these trainers call to differences to reinforce cultural identities, and ultimately paint a bleak scenario of obstacles. The foreigner’s culture and economic environment is a deviation from the established norm found right here at home. Working across cultures can be risky and stressful. Intercultural communication is a heralding way of dealing with culture clash caused by in-group and out-group differences – and a winning business model for an entire industry of soft-skill trainers and self-proclaimed experts.

Finding Commonalities Across Cultures

But why don’t we think about bridging differences, finding a nexus between two people, and using this link for establishing normality in a heterogeneous cross-cultural team? More likely than not, the American and Indian software engineer both have something in common, be it in their professional education (they both went to university, right?), leisure activities (maybe they play badminton?), or simply the love for good food (who doesn’t?).

Instead of construing a burning platform of threatening differences, we should look at finding such commonalities, and use them as connections to pave a way for a more normal collaboration. The challenge, hence, is no longer unfamiliarity with another culture but expanding the borders of our own group to include someone else, who just happens to be from another culture.

But can we support this process with a smartphone-based self-assessment tool or a two-hour online training? Can we rehearse it in a seminar room? Probably not. Practice drills and role plays in simulated settings work for some behavioral trainings but intercultural trainings are more than teaching people the skill of bridging differences by adapting behavior.

Embracing Diverse Teams

What is more, training should address the topic of inclusion, how to acknowledge that everyone is part of a diverse team, regardless of nationality and location. This is demanding to teach, and it requires a shift back from the other to oneself. How flexible am I? How do I cope with uncertainties? How tolerant am I? How am I being perceived by others? And what if others have a different value system and see me through different cultural lenses? Working with another culture primarily starts with understanding oneself, and building positive energy directed towards the cross-cultural interaction.

Motivation casts a positive halo over cultural intelligence, combining the willingness with the ability to interact effectively. A central part is to consciously gain control over one’s own thinking and feeling when it comes to cross-cultural experiences. Knowledge gained in particular cross-cultural situations and from reading books or attending seminars need to be transferred to broader principles, at the same time compensating for lack of knowledge in certain areas. Real intercultural intelligence is to know what to do when you don’t know, that is when it’s not covered by a smartphone app. Ultimately, the complexity of culture has to be mentored in the field.

Key Takeaways to Be Successful in Intercultural Relationships
  • Many cross-cultural learning tools are methodologically flawed and neither provide valid or helpful advice.
  • Intercultural trainings often reinforce differences in thinking. Instead, finding a common connection can help to establish normality in cross-cultural relations.
  • Cultural intelligence is different from competence and skills; it is about knowing what to do when one really doesn’t know.

About the Author: Wolfgang Messner is Clinical Associate Professor of International Business at the Darla Moore School of Business, University of South Carolina. Prior to joining academia, he has lived and worked as a business executive in Germany, India and the UK. He can be reached at

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