In the past, conducting business overseas was a high-risk enterprise (the map comes from The David Rumsey Map Collection). These days, being based in one region and working with stakeholders who are located overseas is no longer unusual; it’s increasingly the norm.
After just having finished a project where 90% of the project stakeholders were located abroad, I was reflecting this weekend on how this experience was different from other projects I’ve been working on.
What should an American, English-speaking business analyst like myself know if he finds himself working on a project like this? And how does this information apply for those business analysts in other countries who may work with stakeholders abroad?
In a previous blog post Joy Beatty, our VP of Research and a CBAP, outlined six techniques that she found helpful when preparing for elicitation sessions with customers overseas. In this post, I want to try and expand on what Joy said, and discuss some ideas that can make your interactions with overseas stakeholders, and your project, more successful.
The first and most obvious challenge is with language. It’s a given that your native language isn’t everyone’s first language; in my case, working effectively with stakeholders who did not speak English fluently was an absolute must.
If a stakeholder’s unfamiliar accent gets in the way of effective communication, there are a few tips that I found helpful to deal with this problem. First, get yourself an audiopen! It is incredibly helpful on all projects, but was essential for my meetings with non-native English speakers. I could rewind, replay, and slow down meeting audio after the meeting was over to uncover tidbits that I had missed. Even more importantly, it helped me focus more on parsing their accent to understand what was being said during the meeting so that I could ask better questions.
Second, remember that many non-native speakers are more comfortable with a written language (in this case, English) than with a spoken language. Communicating via email and IM gets rid of the accent issue and allows overseas stakeholders more time to respond to requests and questions.
Building a good rapport with overseas stakeholders was another challenge. Of course, this is an issue any time you are working with remote stakeholders (body language and other forms of non-verbal communication are helpful for establishing rapport), but cultural and language differences can make it even harder to find common ground and build trust. There are a few easy things that can be done to improve rapport, however.
I found that learning a little bit of my stakeholder’s native language did wonders. For me, ending an email to a Brazilian stakeholder with “muito obrigado” (“thank you” in Portuguese) and a smiley face prompted a very friendly reply that seemed to set a good tone for the rest of our correspondence. If you have ever traveled to your non-native stakeholder’s home country, even better! Finding these elements of common ground can help you begin a meeting on the right foot and put your stakeholders at ease.
Finally, it is important to show your overseas stakeholder that you are familiar with the concept of time zones. While this was not so much an issue for me when dealing with stakeholders in Latin America, it was crucial to show my European and Asian stakeholders that I respected their time. Even if they are used to scheduling their meetings around your country/region’s business hours, your stakeholders will certainly appreciate an offer to meet at a time that may not be as convenient for you as it is for them.
Ideally you will be able to compromise and schedule some meetings during your normal work hours and some meetings during their normal work hours, but as a US-based business analyst, it was a great trust-building gesture to suggest that some meetings be held when it was convenient for my overseas stakeholders. Even with stakeholders in Latin America, whose local time zones were only a few hours away from mine, I still used an awareness of local time zone to build trust (“It looks like this meeting will be between the hours of 12 and 1 for you…is it okay to cut into your lunch break, or should we reschedule?”).
I bet that most of you have worked closely on projects with overseas stakeholders before. Do you have any other tips for bridging language and culture gaps that have helped make your projects successful?
Or, if you are based outside of the US, do you have any advice for US-based business analysts or IT product managers that can help us bridge language and culture gaps more effectively? What positive or negative experiences have you had and how did they affect the success of your project?