2.4 Micro-level themes in GSW


2.4 Micro-level themes in GSW

We discuss six themes identified as a result of both a ˜top-down analysis of literature and a ˜bottom-up investigation of empirical material. ˜Top-down in that these themes find extensive mention in the various writings on globalization, some of which were discussed earlier. ˜Bottom-up because these themes also reflect patterns observed in the empirical analysis of different case studies. Arising from this ˜top-down and ˜bottomup interplay , which van Maanen (1989) describes as a conversation between conceptual understanding and empirical analysis, we introduce these themes and draw upon them in subsequent chapters to analyse how GSA relationships evolve over time.

Tensions of place and space

˜Space and ˜place have long been concepts of analytical interest to human geographers, and in recent times find central mention in current writings on globalization. Giddens (1990) analyses contemporary life through changes in the conditions of social interactions, from face-to-face or ˜place-based settings in traditional societies to that of absence or ˜space -based settings in current times. Emphasizing this surge of interest in space and place, Dirlik (1998) writes :

The past decade has fortunately seen the eruption of place consciousness into social and political analysis. Place consciousness is closely linked to, and appears as the radical other of, globalism. (1998: 8)

˜Space and ˜place serve as metaphors to understand the relation between material practices and the physical and electronic domains within which they occur. While ˜place is associated with a person s sense of boundedness and particularity, ˜space , in contrast, refers to a sense of universal and the abstract. A place is a space to which meaning has been ascribed and represents a psychologically meaningful material space. Instead of thinking of places as physical areas with boundaries, they can be conceptualized as articulated movements in networks of social relations and understandings . GSW, inspired by the discourse of globalization, assumes a production, capitalist oriented logic that software development can occur in any location (space) as long as labour is available and development costs are low. In the practice of GSW, this assumption stands in tension with organizational and individual needs for place-based work that emphasizes the local and particular. While GSW seeks to operate with a placeless logic, its everyday work practices are primarily place-dependent. Even though firms assume that they can hire people from any part of the world, to actually be able to do so they need to develop an understanding of social life in which place is crucial. To retain an Indian programmer who typically prefers to go to the USA, the firm will need to understand his/her family and social structure and what it means in that context for him/her to go to the USA. Such an understanding is fundamentally place-based, since an individual is not only a member of an organization but also belongs to a family, a community, a broader society and nation. These different memberships introduce their own norms and values that are fundamentally place-based and difficult to transcend.

Space-based work is an underlying assumption of GSW, which is in constant tension with the everyday work practices of the relationship at both the individual and organizational levels that vary with the different stages of evolution of the relationship. We use the lens of this space and place tension as a basis to analyse the case of GlobTel “ MCI discussed in chapter 6.

Complexities of knowledge sharing

Software development is a knowledge- intensive activity, which is further intensified in the GSW context because, in addition to the product domain knowledge required, further knowledge needs to be developed about various contextual issues such as language, national policies, etc. that shape the process of GSW. A key feature of globalization concerns ˜disembedding mechanisms (Giddens 1990) which refer to the processes by which local practices are codified, lifted out of a particular context and re-articulated in other global domains. To permit this ˜ lifting -out process, local interactions and knowledge need to be formalized , codified, disseminated and re-embedded in other domains. This concept has interesting implications for understanding the issue of ˜knowledge transfer and its ˜sharing in GSW, where typically large and distributed organizations have to confront local variations and definitions of knowledge in their alliances in different countries . Complexities arise at various stages of the GSA process, including how knowledge is understood , codified, disembedded, transferred across time and space and re-embedded in other contexts.

Distributed software development fundamentally requires alliance partners to develop a shared understanding of each other s products, processes and work practices. For this, the outsourcing firm requires the transfer of various forms of knowledge to its partners to enable software development to take place. There are various factors that make this process extremely problematic , arising in particular from issues of tacit forms of knowledge and the background knowledge that is required to develop such understanding. Much of the current literature on knowledge management and transfer adopts a rather functionalist position, assuming knowledge to be objective, tangible and therefore transferable between humans and organizations through the use of ICTs. This literature has been a subject of recent critique and over the years information systems researchers have established the problematic nature of transferring knowledge between users and developers even in conditions of co-location. A lot of the knowledge held by the software developers is tacit, and transferring that in conditions of time, space and cultural separation is not problem-free.

To address issues of the subjective nature of knowledge and the social and individual nature of the processes by which knowledge is articulated, transmitted and understood, we adopt an interpretivist position that emphasizes the epistemology of practice as opposed to that of possession. The concept of community of practice (Lave and Wenger 1993) has been established as an effective way to address some of these issues in face- to-face settings. This concept is further developed with the work of Brown and Duguid (2000), who emphasize the process through which groups of practitioners are able to muster collective ˜know how and share this with colleagues in the course of practice.

For Brown and Duguid, knowing is a kind of knowledge inseparable from action and practice is action that draws upon meanings created within a specific social context. They distinguish between knowledge and knowing , but these two concepts are in a ˜ generative dance where knowledge disciplines knowing and knowing produces and reproduces knowledge. Knowledge is thus situated as both a practice and an object (Schultze 1998: 163).

GSW faces the extremely complex challenge of trying to develop ˜universal knowledge systems while dealing with the variations in the local, including firms and individuals. Our approach is to extend the community of practice idea to GSA to form an under- standing of the relationship between GSW and knowledge, and the complexities that arise in sharing ˜know how with colleagues located at remote locations who have situated individual or collective background understanding. The effectiveness or otherwise of these processes of knowledge transfer significantly shapes the evolution of the GSA relationship over time. We consider the different kinds of complexities associated with knowledge at various points in the relationship, from initiation where the alliance is formed in an offshore location to the growth stage where trust is augmented by successful knowledge sharing. Effective knowledge sharing is a key to growth and maturity in GSAs, and can help to move the relation up the value chain to closer collaboration. Failure to do so can similarly have the opposite effect. The dynamics of knowledge transfer and its relation to the process of growth of a GSA is discussed in chapter 7 using the case of Sierra, a UK firm, and its relationship with its Indian subsidiary.

Tensions of standardization

As a strategy of globalization, many firms have established offshore development centres in different parts of the world to enable distributed software development. Bartlett and Ghoshal (2000) describe this as a ˜global strategy where worldwide activities are closely coordinated through central control from headquarters, gaining benefit from a standard product design and global-scale manufacturing. A dominant management perspective often taken is that the world could, and should, be treated as a single integrated market marked by similarities more than by differences. In GSW, standardization is a key feature in building and sustaining a relationship by homogenizing operations to the extent that the outsourcing and outsourced firms cannot be distinguished from each other. The scope of this standardization effort encompasses physical, technical and management domains. While the physical domain could concern the layout of offices, the technical domain involves using the same software development methodologies and the management domain refers to efforts to create a universal template that can be used to define, guide and evaluate management practices across the GSA.

To deal with complexities of knowledge, firms try to simplify tasks by standardizing various processes of knowledge transfer, such as how project reports are written and the criteria to judge the quality of a developer s work. These standardized systems, often codified in manuals and databases, serve as points of reference to coordinate activities of partners across time and space. Such attempts to standardize are rarely unproblematic, and are in tension with the need for flexibility at the ˜local level. While some degree of standardization is essential to enable global coordination, there is always the question of how much and what to standardize. While it may be relatively simple to standardize technical quality control methods , it is much harder to homogenize how managers from different backgrounds communicate.

Standardization takes place at multiple levels, including the choices of individuals to move from one organization to another. As management makes efforts to retain key individuals who are a globally sought-after ˜commodity , they resort to offering various financial compensations and treating them as a ˜key resource . Individualization of these key resources is achieved through standardized market mechanisms of financial packages, career advancement schemes and stock options. The individual developer s aspirations and expectations find solace in compensation systems that are rooted in standardized and global market environments. Developers are individuals to the extent that they are primarily concerned with the kind of technologies they work with and how that adds to their career profile in the global marketplace . The individualization at this level takes place with reference to the standardized skill sets required in the global market.

In an environment as dynamic, interconnected and yet diffused, as that in which GSAs operate, trying to standardize is like shooting at a moving target. Constant movement takes place because of the dynamism of the global setting and the diversity of the partners involved. Hanseth and Braa (2001) argue that the hope of creating a universal standard is an illusion, akin to ˜hunting for the treasure at the end of the rainbow . Each time a standard is believed to be complete and coherent , it is usually discovered during implementation that there are elements lacking or incompletely specified while others have to be changed to make the standards work, which makes implementation difficult and incompatible “ like arbitrary non-standard solutions. Efforts at standardizing are thus constantly being attempted within a ˜non-standardizable context, especially when dealing with management practices that are shaped by the response of individuals. However, some degree of standardization is essential, raising the complex challenge of how to forge a pragmatic balance between developing universal solutions and accounting for local reality.

The tension of standardization is ongoing over the course of the relationship: each stage places varying demands on standardization, in both the domain and extent of application. This dynamic interplay between standardization processes and the process of GSA growth is the lens through which to view the analysis of the case of the GlobTel “ Witech relationship discussed in chapter 4.

Transformations in identity

Transformations of the self and their increasing interconnection with the institutional level are a dominant theme in current writings on globalization. Globalization needs to be interpreted in the context of the interconnections between groups and individuals with institutions. Giddens (1990), for example, discusses how interconnections between the vulnerable nature of knowledge and the placeless logic of modern life contribute to a feeling of ˜existential anxiety or ˜personal meaninglessness at the individual level. A response to these individual-level feelings of anxiety and insecurity comes through various expressions of identity. As organizations increasingly attempt to operate with a placeless logic, implying context independence, individuals primarily remain historically and biographically place-dependent. Castells describes this as dialectical relationship between the ˜net and the self , which makes individuals experience a ˜structural schizophrenia . Castells (2001) argues that the power of identity is a defining feature in contemporary life:

It is true that new institutions could bridge the split between the net and the self, thus avoiding the potential disintegration of society. Indeed, this is my personal hope. In my analytical framework, this process is conceptualized as ˜project identity , that is when social actors, on the basis of whichever cultural materials are available to them, build a new identity that redefines their position in society, and by doing so, seek the transformation of the overall social structure. (2001: 15)

The interconnection between individual identity and social structure raises the empirical question of how identity in GSAs at organizational and individual levels mutually relate. The dynamics of globalization means that identity at different levels is subject to new influences and is hybridized in different ways. Software companies involved in GSAs are being established in India by Indians educated in the USA, modelled on the Silicon Valley approach to innovation and creativity. The American identity is hybridized with Indian values such as ˜eternal relationships as a company strives to construct an organizational identity to face global competition while attempting to overcome local handicaps and build on local strengths. As these companies expand their operations into other markets, for example into Scandinavia, identity tends to become hybrid. Changes in organizational identity are intimately related to the web of inter-organizational relationships involved in GSW that form a valuable input in understanding their evolution.

Individual-level transformations are significant in GSW as software developers are expected rapidly to switch between different projects, technologies and countries. A large software firm in India will typically have projects in North America, Europe and East Asia, and developers are expected to move between these very different technical, social and cultural experiences. Such radical and constant changes in cultural and work contexts are associated with significant transformations in self-identities. The issue of identity is also consciously adopted by organizations as a strategy in a more instrumental mode, for example to project a certain image for marketing purposes or to facilitate more effective HR management. As organizations increasingly experience the problems of attracting and retaining developers, they will need actively to understand the nature of self-identity of developers , and what makes them come to and stay in an organization.

Transformation of identities is a defining feature of contemporary life. In GSAs, the notion of identity is intricately linked with the culture that provides the context within which identity is constructed and with the image that reflects the manner in which identity is presented to the world at large. We discuss the linkage between culture, identity and image in the ComSoft case in chapter 5 to analyse how individual and organizational identifies are intertwined and the manner in which the process of transformation of identity is intricately linked with the growth of the GSA.

Issues of power and control

The manner in which the ˜power of flows dominates the ˜flows of power (Castells 1996) is a key feature of the network society, implying that power will increasingly not be concentrated in institutions but be shaped by the information flows that are dispersed over different kinds of networks. Power is provided by the codes of information and images of their representation, and the ability that firms have to access and use that information. In GSW, these codes of information and images are inscribed in systems development methodologies and quality-level certification, and the possession of these codes becomes an important source of power. Whether the ˜power of flows supersedes the ˜flows of power in practice is a complex question, since power relations are constantly being negotiated and redefined over time. In the initial stages of a GSA relationship, the domain knowledge of what is to be developed rests primarily with the outsourcing company and as a result they control the ˜flows of power . However, as knowledge is gradually transferred to the contracting company, there can be a degree of re-configuring of the power differential. The flows of information and knowledge over the network contribute to this reconfiguration, implying that the ˜power of flows can supersede the ˜flows of power .

Setting up GSA relationships is a complex task requiring significant investments in infrastructure. The organization making these investments is in a position of power as they define the standards of work and how they should be enforced in practice. While technologies can potentially be used to redefine the contours of work in terms of the time and space conditions within which activities are carried out, it is still the groups in power that define how this reconfiguring takes place in practice. For example, in setting up schedules for videoconference meetings between groups in different parts of the world, it is often the group in power that defines when the meeting takes place “ normally, at a time which is more convenient for one group (middle of the day, for example) which may be late at night for the other group.

In the kind of knowledge work that is associated with GSW, the role of individuals is significant, implying that the power balance revolves around key individuals. The power is often exercised by the management providing extra compensation and attention to these key individuals. In the buyers market of the global software domain, such power is magnified. Beck (1992) argues that individual power is, however, shaped within a capitalist logic and framework, which is in the control of large organizations. Companies may need developers to work on proprietary languages, for example, which in a sense blocks them from speaking to other companies that use alternative development platforms. The methodologies and processes used in the software development process themselves serve as instruments of power and control, raising the empirical questions of which methodologies are used, who is imposing them and what possibilities exist to use alternative approaches.

The issue of power and control is highlighted in chapter 8 through the Gowing “Eron GSA case analysis.

Cross-cultural communication challenges

Research in international business has established the importance of cross-cultural challenges of communication especially in face-to-face settings. Cross-cultural communication, in general, is hampered by a multiplicity of challenges arising from the difficulties in understanding the ˜other person s point of view . Culture is often the root of communication challenges as it shapes how we approach problems and participate in groups and communities. However, these issues take on a different form and level of complexity when looked at within the context of the temporal and spatial conditions of separation that are inherent in GSW. Communication challenges are magnified by the technical nature of language that is required in the conduct of software development work owing to the multiplicity of products, technical processes, tools, notations and methodologies involved. The use of different and often rather complex forms of ICTs, each with its own conditions and level of reliability in capacity to support interactions between distributed teams , makes cross-cultural communication a central challenge in the GSW context.

Culture is a complex topic, with many different definitions. We use the term ˜culture to refer to a group or community that share some common experiences that shape the way in which its members understand the world. As discussed above in the case of identity, culture is linked with concepts of the identity and image of the organization. Culture is not taken as something ˜given , but as something that is continuously constructed and achieved through a variety of complex organizational processes, including that of communication. Communication takes place within different members of the ˜community of practice engaged in the GSA including the tasks of planning and implementing software development activities. These work practices refer to the various socio-cultural processes inherent in the process of knowledge transfer, including the manner in which members draw upon and apply different forms of explicit “implicit, formal “informal knowledge. Of interest here are the processes of communication involved as members of these communities deal with the task of exchanging information and knowledge about various products, processes and practices. More specifically , we focus on understanding the various cross-cultural aspects that shape the processes of communication and with it the nature of social relationships between actors that further inform and shape subsequent communication. The nature of relationships depends upon and also reflects the ICTs being deployed (or not), the bandwidth in place and the manner in which they both facilitate and constrain communication processes. The ICT infrastructure in place is a significant determinant to the question of how the balance between the staff situated onsite (in the UK, for instance) and offshore (in India) is developed, which in turn influences the nature of relationships between the various actors involved.

Although ICTs provide the technical capability to develop communication systems that are ˜real time , and ˜simultaneous , different members of a community of practice (say the Indians and Canadians engaged in a GSA) may have varying norms and assumptions about what ˜real time and ˜simultaneity mean. There will also be differences in the resources and capabilities to access and use the ICTs. People and groups from different cultural backgrounds use different spoken languages and have varying approaches to decision making, conflict resolution, the use of evidence to justify statements, forms of non-verbal behaviour and preferences for written, verbal or graphical communication. The ICTs themselves have varying effects on communication since they favour the preservation (over time) and dissemination (across space) of some kinds of information over others. ICTs also differ in the extent to which they allow immediate or delayed reciprocity, and static or dynamic information exchange. Some organizations thus prefer to use videoconferences for project monitoring meetings, where questions raised can be immediately answered . While immediate reciprocity is an advantage of videoconferencing it is expensive to install and operate as compared to email, which provides relatively ˜delayed reciprocity .

Although, in general, ICTs technically provide the capability to communicate, groups have different capabilities to convert this ˜communication into ˜collaboration . This important distinction is often missed when viewed from an information-processing perspective, which equates communication with collaboration. Just as increased information sharing is a necessary but not sufficient condition for building knowledge, communication and collaboration in a GSA are necessary but insufficient. For collaboration to take place, communication needs to be effectively assimilated and applied in practice to the everyday conduct of the GSA. The influence of communications on the relationship needs to be reflected upon and revised to change behaviour. Collaboration, which can be conceptualized as ˜effective communication , takes place under conditions of mutuality when members talk ˜with and not ˜past each other (Couch 1989), and this mutuality is directed towards substantive content relating to the attainment of project goals.

A variety of technical, social and organizational issues in the context of globalization thus combines to create various cross-cultural challenges to communication that shape the nature of a GSA relationship and how it evolves over time. In chapter 9 we discuss some of these cross-cultural communication challenges in the relationships between Japanese and Indian firms.