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Getting the Chinese to work in teams

Norwegian companies have been less than successful at developing software abroad. But now the answer is on its way.

The one-child policy in China puts children under the continuous 'leadership' of their parents and teachers, and this makes it difficult to integrate employees into effective, agile teams. Photo: ThinkStock

By Åse Dragland

“We assume too easily that what works well in Norway will also be successful abroad”, says Nils Brede Moe at SINTEF. Recently back home after some extended trips to the USA, Asia and Europe, Moe now recognises some of the differences that Norwegian parent companies often forget when they establish themselves overseas.

In Norway, so-called ‘agile software development’ is here to stay. Daily meetings, small teams, flexibility and close contact with clients have all resulted in major improvements, but there is currently no widely established approach to global software development.

This is why ICT researchers at SINTEF want to develop new methods tailored to the demands of global software development. The SMIGLO project, involving the companies DNV-GL, Storebrand and Fara, has been set up for this purpose.

FACTS:

  • An increasing number of companies are having to learn to live with software systems in order to deal with the banking, insurance, manufacturing, electricity, and oil and gas sectors.
  • Surveys show that global projects utilise 250 per cent more resources than domestic projects, and that Norway is slipping in the international rankings when it comes to exploiting globalisation.
  • The SMIGLO project is funded by the Research Council of Norway with the aim of developing new, research-based, approaches tailored to the specific requirements of global software development.
  • The project has a four-year term. DNV-GL, Storebrand and Fara, which have offices in India, China, Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Sweden, Finland and the USA, are participating in the project.
  • In Norway, agile development involving daily meetings and autonomous teams is the norm, and its success means that we want similar practices to be adopted in global projects.
  • Three SINTEF researchers are making trips to a variety of offices abroad, organising group processes and observing how teams function.

 

Effective development means a competitive advantage

The three companies supply software products to demanding clients outside Norway, and software development on a global scale is crucial to their future success in these markets.

“There’s no doubt that an effective development approach will be an important competitive advantage”, say Moe and his colleague Torgeir Dingsøyr. “All these companies have agile development systems in place in Norway and have started to test them globally, but getting them to work on the international stage is a demanding task. Factors such as socio-cultural differences, geographical distances and working across time zones all present major challenges”, they say.

During the last six months, three SINTEF researchers have been travelling around the world observing how teams work, talking to employees, and organising group processes.

Their aim is to find out how the method should be adapted to specific situations. For example, how should an organisation and its personnel modify their ways of working? What approach will work well, and what will never work in an international team, regardless of the situation?

The search for techniques that work well across many time zones also presents challenges. For example, a department at DNV-GL will soon have personnel in China, Norway, Poland, England and the USA.

“We want to develop the right methods for projects with development activities taking place in the same time zone, and for projects being carried out across time zones” explains Moe.

Technology and process

Two things came under the spotlight while the researchers were on their travels. The first was to put in place technology aimed at helping people work together and at getting processes in small teams to work without hitches.

“In order to create a network and engage in dialogue, employees rely entirely on video conferences and Skype, which require good screen and sound quality”, says Torgeir Dingsøyr. “It’s easy to forget this when you’re sitting here in Norway with a large screen and a good broadband connection”, he says.

Secondly, when it comes to process, many factors play a role. Such as cultural differences. These have a major influence on how meetings go.

Dingsøyr tells us about stories presented at group meetings and during other discussions. Like the one about the Swedish company operating in China with a Swedish boss and his Chinese deputy.

“While the boss was away for a day, he asked his deputy to complete a report. The deputy said okay. Later in the day, the deputy confirmed that everything was okay. But the next day the report wasn’t ready. Who was responsible? The Swedes would argue that it was the deputy who had failed in her duties”, says Dingsøyr. “But the Chinese would argue that it was the boss. He should have known that she had more than enough on her plate and couldn’t finish the report. Perceptions like this are worth examining more closely”, he says.

Working hours and employment contracts

While on his travels he heard about other cultural differences which hold up the system. Such as working hours. Norwegians start work at 8 in the morning and go home just before 4 to collect their kids from pre-school. In contrast, it’s common in the USA to work long days and even unpaid in order to impress the boss in the scramble for promotion. In Australia too there is a culture of working until as late as 6 p.m.

I USA og Australia er det vanlig å sitte lene på jobben for å tekkes sjefen. Men effektiviteten er ikke alltid så stor, og norske bedrifter sliter med å få fram reelle kostnader på et prosjekt. Foto: Morguefile.

In USA and Australia there is a culture of working late. But the efficiency is low and it’s impossible for the Norwegian developers to calculate the real costs of a project. Photo: Morguefile

 

“We have talked to Norwegian developers working in Australia and they think that efficiency is low”, says Moe. “Moreover, it’s impossible to calculate the real costs of a project. We don’t want overtime worked on agile software development projects. A standard 40-hour week is sufficient”, he says.

Further challenges encountered by the researchers include employment contracts and their stability. Personnel in countries such as Ukraine, the USA and Poland are frequently employed under short-term contracts. In some cases they’re just hired for the project in question. How is it possible to establish trust and confidence within a team under such conditions?

Taking responsibility

While in Norway it is commonplace to work within flat hierarchies with widespread delegation of responsibility, the Norwegian companies encounter other systems in countries such as China.

“A Swedish company operating in China tells us that it selects its employees straight from university before they get to work for authoritarian state organisations which ruin them completely”, says Moe.

“The Swedes believe that the one-child policy puts children under the continuous ‘leadership’ of their parents and teachers, and this makes it difficult to integrate employees into effective, agile teams”, he says. “All their choices in life are made by adults. They’re only allowed to play with other children for a few hours on Sundays. The Swedish managers we talked to said that when employees asked for salary increases, new assignments or promotions, it was probably because their parents or grandparents had asked them to”, he says.

Moe also points to the far eastern ‘loss of face’ culture. It’s often difficult for Chinese developers to report project delays because they fear being perceived as letting their managers down. The habit of not showing what you’re thinking and feeling, but simply answering ‘yes’ and smiling in order not to ‘lose face’, can result in major misunderstandings between western and eastern cultures.

“In spite of this, we’re seeing that the rest of the world is catching up when it comes to agile development”, say Moe and Dingsøyr. “There are major benefits to be had, and we believe in our values and our way of organising work. This approach to organising development work will help to enhance the innovation capability of Norwegian companies”, they say.

Published 07 October 2014

Contact us:

 

Seniorforsker:

Nils Brede Moe 

Seniorforsker:

Torgeir Dingsøyr