4.3 Case analysis: a standardization perspective


4.3 Case analysis: a standardization perspective

Like many large MNCs in the 1990s, GlobTel was active in establishing offshore software development centres (like WS) globally to enable distributed software development. Coordinating work in these different centres raised the need for manifold and complex standards operating at different levels and locations. The extreme diversity and scope of standards that come into play in any GSA requires a conceptualization that is typically broader than past research that had focused on technical artefacts and infrastructures . For example, Hanseth (1996) describes standards with respect to basic communication protocols, their syntax, semantics and pragmatics of the information to be exchanged. Monteiro (1999) describes the implementation and deployment of relevant Internet standards, including the specification of communication protocols. Hanseth and Braa (2001) have examined in Norsk Hydro the implementation of the Hydro Bridge standard to improve coordination between various divisions and the corporate headquarters. Related research in the health domain (for example, Timmermans and Berg 1997) has focused on artefacts like medical protocols and the socio-political processes through which they are constructed and implemented. While such research has helped to understand how standards around artefacts or technologies are created, it does not explicitly account for the standardization of management practices and processes and how these are redefined through use. The analysis of this case focuses on two key questions:

  • What are the nature and scope of standards that come into play in a GSA relationship?

  • What are the mechanisms of translation through which these standards are created and integrated (or not) into everyday work “ the process of standardization?

The analysis of these two questions helps to examine the broader question of the role of standards and processes of standardization in shaping the evolution of a GSA relationship.

The nature of standards

We have conceptualized standards as simplification and abstraction with the aim to define and communicate significant aspects of the processes, artefacts and structures across time and space. The aim of standards is to universalize . In GSAs, a wide range of standards comes into play covering at least five different domains: physical infrastructure; technical infrastructure; technical processes; education, training and technical support; and management processes. We provide some examples of the nature of standards in these domains.

Physical infrastructure

The physical infrastructure includes physical buildings , office layouts, coffee machines and even the badges worn by the WS staff working on GlobTel projects. WS established a separate building to house the staff and equipment attached to GlobTel projects and tried to create an office layout that replicated the set-up in Canada. These ˜physical standards helped first to create a unique sense of identity for the GlobTel relationship and secondly to provide the GlobTel staff when they were in India with a sense of comfort by being ˜as if still in North America, within the GlobTel environment .

Technical infrastructure

˜Technical infrastructure includes a number of items including workstations, replicated servers, networks, switches for testing, software tools for configuration management, programming languages, telephone lines, etc. For example, from the WS premises, a person could pick up the phone and dial a counterpart in Canada using just the extension number, as if in the same building. In just the same way a Canadian staff member could call WS. Although the replication of the technical infrastructure helped to improve the efficiencies of working “ faster connectivity, for example “ it also enabled a more seamless environment. GlobTel staff worldwide could operate within a common technological framework. GlobTel specified the use of a proprietary language as the development platform. Although a common language helped to standardize the technical implementation process, it made some developers feel they were being prevented from ˜speaking to others in the global marketplace , thus impeding their marketability and movement.

Technical processes

The technical processes include the software development methodologies, processes by which revised code was integrated into existing software archives and systems for quality assurance such as quality manuals and other documentation. There was a very detailed process on how a software developer after making revisions to a piece of code should send it to the central GlobTel archive, and the procedure by which that would be accepted, for example. Elaborate software development methodologies were in place that specified various ˜gates during the process. These gates signified when there would be particular ˜hand-offs of project deliverables, including software code, from developers in India to the central software archives. The methodologies adopted by GlobTel in most cases superseded those existing already in WS, typically developed in accordance to ISO and CMM quality specifications.

Technical and management knowledge

An important aspect of GSAs is the technical and management knowledge required to facilitate GSW. The technical domain includes knowledge of telecommunications, of specific switches manufactured by GlobTel, and of the proprietary programming language specified by GlobTel. Management knowledge includes understanding of North American and GlobTel culture, particular procedures and practices within GlobTel including systems of personnel appraisal, productivity measurement criteria for labs, and the matching of the organizational structure, management hierarchies and reporting relationships of GlobTel with WS. At a more meta level, as WS took on ownership responsibilities of certain products and features, they needed to develop a ˜service mind- set and provide service at quality levels such that the customers could not differentiate whether WS or GlobTel were actually providing the service.

The above discussion emphasizes the different kinds of standards and the wide scope they cover “ from the global “universal domain of software development methodologies to the very local level of employee badges. Some of the standards are open , for example, the CMM quality levels. Others are proprietary, like the platform on which GlobTel s systems were developed. Coordinating these very different types of standards is extremely difficult, involving various mechanisms of translation. Translation refers to the mechanisms used to ˜interest [or impose on] others in your concerns and describes the processes by which standards are introduced into the everyday practice of GSA. The introduction of these standards can be met with resistance, a reinterpretation of their meaning and an ongoing redefinition.

Mechanisms of translation

An analytical focus on standards and the various translations that surround them helps to emphasize how standards shift and the mechanisms through which these changes happen. As Hanseth, Monteiro and Hatling (1996) point out, a key challenge in standardization is managing the tension between the need for stable standards on one hand and for flexibility on the other. ˜Flexibility refers to the potential for further changes in redefining patterns of use and in the symbolic value the actors place on gaining a sense of control over the process. Our analysis aims at understanding these mechanisms of translations and how tensions arising from their implementation shape the course of the relationship. The following two main mechanisms of translation used by GlobTel were:

  1. The establishment of WS as a ˜hub for GlobTel s India operations

  2. The role of WS in the ˜GlobTel manager standardization effort.

WS as the ˜India hub

GlobTel were interested in standardizing their activities first across the four partners in India and secondly across the broader network of GlobTel s labs worldwide. From GlobTel s perspective, standardizing activities in India was desirable as it would help to make better use of resources, improve coordination and enable more effective sharing of information and knowledge across the partners. For a variety of reasons, including the sense of a loss of identity, WS did not always share the same perspective. The idea of a ˜hub is used as a metaphor to depict WS role as the central coordinating point for GlobTel s activities transcending its four partners in India. GlobTel s standardization efforts can be understood at two levels: (1) internal to WS, and (2) across the four partners in India.

Within WS

Standardization was attempted through a variety of techniques “ physical, technical and managerial . The independent lab served to create a unique identity of a ˜GlobTel island , where even WS employees from outside the GlobTel group had restricted access. This unique identity was reinforced in many ways such as the WS staff wearing badges with ˜GlobTel logos and an office layout with the ˜look and feel of a GlobTel office in NorthAmerica. On the surface, this segregation provided security, but at a deeper level it defined a predominantly GlobTel frame of reference, an identity, that was unique and visible in WS. This physical structure was reinforced by a number of other electronic mechanisms such as General Information Sessions, newsletters, bulletins and the Intranet. WS was inundated with information about GlobTel. The HR manager said she had introduced a system of performance appraisal orientation sessions once a month so that ˜there is always a talk of it . The pervasiveness and intensity of information made an Indian manager worry about her staff being more aligned to GlobTel than to WS, and being informed and interested in events and activities in GlobTel rather than in their home organization.

At the technical level, the information and communication technology infrastructure played a key role in developing standard frameworks of work in a material and symbolic sense. This reflects Akrich s (1992) argument that ˜technical objects thus simultaneously embody and measure a set of relations between heterogeneous elements (1992: 205). For example, the telephone link that enabled a WS staff member to ring a counterpart in North America and vice-versa as if they ˜were within the building, symbolically fostered for WS a sense of ˜inclusion in the relationship. The software development environment was established in WS such that work could go on in India ˜as if it was taking place in North America . GlobTel s quality processes and software development methodologies superseded WS existing internal processes. Frequent videoconferences, emails and phone calls, reinforced GlobTel s way of working, such as the use of particular models for project monitoring. Frequent videoconferences enabled the increased ˜presence of GlobTel staff in India even though they were ˜physically absent . This electronic presence was further reinforced through the presence of North American expatriates in WS, more than in any of the other partners. These expatriates had the primary mandate of introducing WS to the ˜GlobTel way of doing and thinking about things , and detailing how this could be achieved in practice.

A number of management systems were introduced in WS. These systems could be thought of as ˜non-human actors (Latour 1987) who spoke ˜on behalf of GlobTel in WS.These included GlobTel s systems of regular and continuous appraisal, spot awards for reward and recognition and honouring tenure. Systems of mentoring that involved attaching new recruits to the more experienced people in the project, used extensively in North America, were introduced in WS. Through a systematic and intensive introduction of these systems and information, the use of GlobTel terminology such as ˜buddying , ˜GIS , etc. became part of the everyday and also official vocabulary (for example, in appraisal forms) in WS. In many cases, systems first introduced into WS were classified as ˜best practices that were then spread to other groups within the company. This ˜organizational spreading helped to institutionalize and strengthen these practices.

External to WS

WS served as the key point of coordination of GlobTel s activities across the four partners. WS was the point through which communication links were routed. Initially, switches required for simulating the development environment were sent to WS, and subsequently to the other partners. From a management perspective, WS served as the entity through which GlobTel s management training programmes were conducted for the overall India operations.

As compared with the other Indian partners who resisted the idea of GlobTel expatriates sitting in their offices, WS had expatriates located almost permanently on the premises, including a Director responsible for the overall India operations. The use of expatriates and consultants was a particularly strong technique to develop stronger ˜inscriptions of GlobTel standards. We use the term ˜inscriptions in the same sense as Callon (1991) when he says that ˜an inscription is the translation of one s interest into material forms (1991: 143). Interestingly, many of the expatriates were of Indian origin with many years prior experience with GlobTel in North America. They were thus expected to have a sufficient understanding of the local culture to enable effective communication with the Indians, and to be integrated into the broader GlobTel system. They could thus understand the GlobTel perspective and would usually concede the superiority of Western management practices and standards. These expatriates defined their mandate in India to ˜introduce the GlobTel way of working in WS , to make ˜WS understand better the nature of GlobTel s expectations , and to make the Indian system more ˜ objective and ˜accountable like their own. Edstrom and Galbraith (1977) identified the significance of sending managers from head offices to their subsidiaries, coupled with a systematic pattern of socialization as a means of control (Kamoche 2000). WS expected the expatriates to serve multiple roles in exercising control through micro- management and also to be a useful resource for solving mostly technical problems. The expatriates, coupled with many experts from North America, served as crucial agents of change to introduce and reinforce the standard GlobTel culture in WS, and through WS to the Indian partners.

Training sessions were important translation mechanisms since they built similar approaches for developing technical competence, and created common cultural and linguistic frameworks. There is an integrative relation between management training and the development of a shared culture. Training serves as a tool for the transmission of culture, which in turn furnishes the rationale for training (Kamoche 2000). Organizational values incorporated in training courses assume legitimacy by becoming part of the knowledge required for job performance and career advancement. In international management, training efforts need to go beyond simple skill and competence formation to the more complex domain of how knowledge can be transmitted and interpreted across cultures. The complexity arises from the fact that such knowledge has both functional and symbolic values since it appeals both to the managers self-interest (career advancement) and to their sense of ideology, in this case inscribed in Western management practices.

WS and the ˜GlobTel manager

A key initiative taken by GlobTel to integrate culture and various HR initiatives was to create a ˜standard template for management through development of a ˜Global manager . This reflected GlobTel s attempt to create a universal template of management that could be used as a basis to define, guide and manage the work in the four Indian organizations and compare this work across the broader global network. This template could also serve as a basis to coordinate the diverse activities of software development projects that require simultaneous interactions with many different groups of people and organizations. GlobTel selected WS to help implement this standard template by taking on secondment the WS Human Resources Manager (Chandra) who continued to sit in the WS office. Chandra described her task in the following terms:

There is standardization. GlobTel has so many D-Level managers, for example, all over the world, and using these standardized systems they can take a quick look at the level of the skills set to determine the overall competency. While the roles and competencies are the same, the managers are of course different. So, India and UK can be merged and made one. I believe the standards and competencies of GlobTel managers are higher than what [they are] here. We are trying to culturally change some of the behaviours of the managers here. Then at the same level, depending on the behaviours that are exhibited, GlobTel can possibly reward them. By developing a ˜Global manager , GlobTel can leverage it for different contexts because the cultural framework they are using is the same. Culturally, we can change them and make them more aware. The model is generic in nature. You may have the most beautiful eyes, nose, and mouth, but put together the impact may not be so good. It depends on how things fit together. The model is generic and it covers 22 spheres.

Chandra tried to introduce within WS and with the other Indian partners various ˜best practices , including a quantified system for performance measurement called the ˜Performance Dimensions Dictionary (PDD). The PDD served as a new ˜common language to describe employee competencies and serve as a reference document to develop standard techniques for identifying and measuring them. It also specified how to use these measurements as a basis for performance appraisal. ˜Competencies referred to a set of measurable performance criteria designed to enable understanding ˜on-the-job behaviours of professionals and to help them ˜improve and thereby enhance their chances of success in the company. An internal document described the role of the PDD as follows :

It is intended to be a reference document for people in GlobTel globally who want to identify ways to improve performance and to establish objective assessment of performance. The common reference point will help provide the objectivity that is needed to ensure fairness, and connect people processes such as recruitment, development, appraisal and training right across the organization.

A number of other quantified systems were introduced to develop measures of productivity, competency measurement, performance appraisal and for attrition monitoring. Models of quantification potentially serve to develop powerful inscriptions because of the inherent belief that managers have in numbers , and the standard basis it provides to compare processes across time and space. An interesting example of this quantification is the PDD used as a means to quantify systems of performance appraisal and to enable its uniform spread by its being placed on the Intranet. The PDD consisted of nine parameters represented in a matrix form with different weightings depending on the level of the person. The supervisor computed an aggregated index as an overall performance indicator. Employee competencies were graded on a scale of 1 ( lowest ) to 4 (highest). With this quantification and standardization, it was expected that managers from one organization could be compared with others and their own performances monitored over time. This system of quantification had implications for larger managerial processes such as recruiting, dealing with attrition and computing the average competency level in the organization.

A number of other systems of quantification were also introduced. GlobTel introduced a system of monthly reporting for the Indian partners that gave the productivity of the lab in quantitative terms. After some resistance, this system of productivity reporting was formally introduced. A local practice of not having such written reports was thus subsumed within the standard global framework of lab productivity reports. With these reports , GlobTel managers in North America could potentially interrogate the Indian labs about their monthly performance and compare them with other labs worldwide.

Another quantitative system was the self-assessed ˜ user satisfaction reports . Initially, this system was also resisted by some of the Indian labs but subsequently accepted on GlobTel s insistence.

A larger aim of these various translation mechanisms was to create a technical, cultural, managerial and physical framework in which GlobTel employees in both North America and India could feel the same as in North America. Such a structure was designed to create more efficient mechanisms of coordination and to bring economies of scale through the sharing of resources. From the WS perspective, these standards were supposed to upgrade management practices by introducing systems that would help them engage with telecommunications and GSW more effectively in the future. WS was to feel like a ˜virtual GlobTel lab and part of a larger worldwide lab network. However, attempts to standardize came with their own tensions, which shaped the process of the relationship.