11.4 Managing communication


11.4 Managing communication

IS development is communication- intensive , complex and difficult even in conditions of co-location and proximity (e.g. in the same physical building). Gone are the days of remote data-processing departments that would build systems around technical imperatives divorced from the reality of user needs. In the 1990s, methodologies and approaches focused on user -centred design such as rapid application development, SSADM and other similar methodologies that emphasized the importance of management process between various stakeholder groups. In the UK, the British Computer Society ˜hybrid manager concept has been used as a basis for many Bachelors and Masters IS programmes, emphasizing skills in teamworking, presentation and inter- viewing in addition to technical IS skills. This has led to a focus on new roles such as the ˜business analyst , designed to facilitate the process of communication between users and technical developers and ensure that ˜business benefits of IT systems are realized. These ˜hybrid managers are trained to view implementation as a challenge of ˜hearts and minds and not just a technical exercise. Such a focus emphasizes interpersonal (or ˜soft ) skills; the ability to manage expectations and politics, motivate, inspire and lead are viewed as being just as important as the mastery of ˜hard skills such as critical path analysis (CPA) and other project management techniques. This need for ˜hybrid skills becomes magnified in GSAs, with the additional challenges of language within multiple cross-cultural settings.

Practical management guides (such as Karolak 1998) suggest that communication in GSW can be understood using the ˜sender “receiver model of Shannon and Weaver (1964). Other theories categorize the various communication media according to their ability to facilitate shared meaning or convey information between remotely located senders and receivers (Daft and Lengal 1984). These models attempt to match information requirements and methods of communication; however, they have been subject to critique for presenting a functionalist, static and rational view of the communication process (Lee 1994; Markus 1994). We have adopted an approach that emphasizes communication in GSA as being better examined as an interpretive process , an accomplishment that is continuously being constructed and negotiated where conflict may be present and beliefs are not necessarily automatically shared. Functionalist views of communication, on the other hand, assume a mechanistic process where meaning is objective and universal and can be transmitted to neutral recipients. The complexities of the interpretive process are magnified in GSAs because development is done in a different place (usually offshore), mediated by various ICTs across time zones and by people with different cultural and technological backgrounds. Far from being neutral recipients of dialogue, GSA participants in the act of interpretation draw upon their understanding of the rules and resources of communication in the various cross-cultural systems of which they are members . Rules and resources are manifest and constructed in the communicative act in various forms, including the structure and content of an email message, a telephone conversation, a videoconference meeting or a verbal or non-verbal message in a co-located setting.

In the case studies we observed different strategies to manage communication in the use of ICTs; these ranged from the intensive use of ICTs (email and videoconference in the case of GlobTel) to a more conscious avoidance of it (Japan). Sierra adopted three project models and associated communication strategies. In model one, development relied on the assumption that ICTs would bridge communication between UK customers and developers in India. Model two involved a split-team model between the UK and India and in model three only projects that were modular, self-contained, stable and ˜specifiable were sent to India. These modules would then require minimal interaction between India and the UK and could be ˜bolted in to the master application at specified project stages. Difficulties in communication ranged from the relatively ˜hard , technical problems (ICT delays, breakdowns) to ˜soft issues such as differences in accents, dissonance and background knowledge. In models one and two, misunderstandings of specifications were related to ˜hard technical problems such as unreliability of videoconferencing equipment. At the ˜softer end of the continuum, customer requirements were dynamic; technical knowledge evolved in the UK through situated practice could not easily be transferred to the Indians. The ICTs used to communicate did not offer the ˜readiness at hand which a face-to-face discussion or meeting around the water cooler would supply. Differences in background knowledge between Indian- and UK-based developers often contributed to misunderstandings about communicating and interpreting design specifications; such problems meant that UK-based developers did not adequately trust Indian development (we discuss ˜trust in more detail below) and often preferred to work locally themselves than engage with the communication problems.

In Gowing, the communication moved from an initial ˜body-shopping model using face-to-face co-situated developers to an onshore “offshore arrangement where communication was mediated through an onshore Indian presence. Communication consisted only of structured programming specifications that could be sent to India and code returned, using simple file transfer and clarification using emails. This ˜minimizing interaction strategy, however, prevented Gowing from moving more sophisticated work offshore. When they subsequently did adopt this strategy, Eron employed a speech therapist who, along with the Eron HR manager, performed regular communication and cultural awareness training. Moving up the value chain required more intensive communication, the use of ˜straddlers who could bridge communication between UK and India and greater rotation of staff in both directions. GlobTel s communication strategies varied with the different levels of work (1 “4) carried out in India, and was based upon the amount of bandwidth that was in place, the use of expatriates and the degree of permissible on-site presence. GlobTel made extensive use of ICTs, including Intranet, videoconference, email, fax and telephone. At a higher level of work, GlobTel tried to do away with communication differences through their ˜global manager initiative. Japanese “Indian communication relied on improvisation and was shaped by, and was also responsible for shaping, business models, project management practices and social relationships.

As a result of advances in tools and increases in bandwidth, ICTs will no doubt facilitate improved communication between stakeholders. Software configuration management and Web-based enterprise development portals offer access via a single interface to unified software development and project management tools. Other tools being used include fax machines, conference calls, cellular phones, pagers and videoconferencing. Instant messaging, virtual meeting rooms, application sharing, centralized document storage management search and indexing can all be used to facilitate interaction. While these technologies may improve communication under certain conditions, they in themselves do not contain any inherent capacity to ensure good communication: possessing a good word processor does not create a good author! Recognizing and agreeing the nature of ˜hard and ˜soft communication issues, staff rotation, mixed teams , training programmes, use of ˜straddlers , improvisation and minimizing un- necessary communication are tactics used in the case studies at various stages of the relationship. Rather than attempting to prescribe solutions, we suggest some questions that reflective managers need to consider, summarized in box 11.3.

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Box 11.3 Key questions: managing communication
  • How can business models be developed that are compatible with the possible communication strategies and vice versa?

  • What ICTs can be used that are compatible with the socio-cultural and physical context?

  • What are the national stereotypes that individuals have, and how can these be dispelled in favour of a deeper, cross-cultural and contextualized understanding?

  • How can the onshore “offshore mix be developed to help make communication more effective? What techniques (such as the use of ˜straddlers ) can be used?

  • How can more effective training programmes be developed to provide the right blend of communication skills and technical abilities ?

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