Communication issues when adapting outsourcing

Posted by Filip Ekberg on 14 Dec 2008

Background of Outsourcing

A first view

Let’s assume that you run a company, no matter if the company is big or small. Just imagine having to build a project where you know that your current staff either doesn’t have the right knowledge to solve this problem or the number of staff members is not sufficient. This is where your company will face a problem, either you hire some new personnel or you consider Outsourcing your project. In this text, we will talk only about outsourcing when it comes to information technology projects not any other work fields such as call centers etc.

So when browsing Wikipedia¹ we see that the following description is given “Outsourcing involves the transfer of the management and/or day-to-day execution of an entire business function to an external service provider”. This means that we can transfer our activities on our project to another country and have others take the work load. If we think closely on this, for how long has really outsourcing been available, when did it become easy to Communicate with countries far away? The answer is fairly easy, assume we had no internet and no computers, how would we then communicate with ie India? It would be impossible to this without our technology we have today. So considering a good interaction with computers is both a requirement and in today’s work spaces something that we can assume exists.

Outsourcing your project has in the last couple of years become a bigger and bigger way of solving company problems, these problems being Cultural, communicational and other areas of inconvenience as discussed by Sofie Alriksson².

This gives a good overview of what exactly Outsourcing is and how it’s adapted, now let’s continue discussing benefits and how technical problems might affect our work.

Main benefits

As roughly mentioned above the benefits of outsourcing in general is to take the work load of your staff or to gather new personnel. As mentioned by Sofie Alriksson², adapting Outsourcing is mainly because you want to work on your core activity and let others focus on the outmost parts of the project, having companies’ overseas working on your modules while you are focusing on the main frame.

When having a computer project the price today is often very high, especially the production const, personnel in ex Sweden is very high this will of course give a result that the project will either be rushed or that the company will not afford having the project running for long. By outsourcing your project this scenario might change dramatically meaning that the cost for personnel is much less and this giving more money to more personnel having the project released faster.

Adapting Outsourcing to your project

Handling work load over seas

One of the first things you might consider when starting a project is to have all the documentation ready, this means that having UML-documentation, project plans, time tables and other planning papers ready when outsourcing, because being over-prepared doesn’t exist in the world of outsourcing.

Another thing to consider is; how will the outsourced company handle regular deliveries? What project models do we need to follow? These are some key points to consider, which again takes us to the most important part of all, the computer interaction. We can’t have fairly good English speaking personnel overseas calling us in the middle of the night giving us a project status report. A lot of the countries where outsourcing is cheap, is in another time zone that where the staff is actually expensive.

So how would report on a daily basis work? E-mails might not be as secure as you’d like, because the service itself is not encrypted, meanwhile there are of course solutions for this, but not to take this too much off topic, I’d say that using a closed project platform such as Sharepoint or any other project organization software out there. You can probably find a lot on the open source community which you could customize for your needs.

However, let’s not talk more about the software to be used but rather how we use the selected way of reporting. This is something that we really need to point out to the outsourced company, how we want them to report. As mentioned before, being to clear on what you need, how you need it and when you need it, is never a bad thing.

Communication problems

Main problems

Outsourcing might sound very good and sure can be a good solution for your situation. However, there are always downsides with solution that presents them as being this perfect. These problems are taken up by both Sofie Alriksson² and Jeff Atwood³, besides from the obvious that your project might be shipped to India where you will have no visual perspective over the work, you might find troubles such as the ones Jeff Atwood³ states here “They get cancelled. Or the consultant who bid on the work never delivered, or delivered poor results. Or the client has unreasonable expectations, or doesn’t actually know what he wants.” What actually does happened if you bid too low and the consultant or outsourced company realizes this and in the middle of the process decides to quit? There’s no good solution for that problem, being repetitive is the best learning process, so here goes again, never ever give to little information.

Cultural problems

The above problems isn’t the only issues when adapting outsourcing, you might as well find that the cultural difference it way to big and this problem is clearly talked about in Sofie Alrikssons² paper, she also presents a possible solution which in this case was to inform the company where you outsource of your culture and how you like your work to be handled. It’s also very important that the hiring company has knowledge about the other culture, understanding is very important from both parties.

How does the cultural problem affect the computer interaction? For instance imagine outsourcing your project to India where they have totally different believes than we have here up north, this means that they might have different rituals than we do such as preying on a regular basis and on a specific time. If the hiring company does not have knowledge about this, what happens when we try to call them at this time, or when we assume to have something delivered? As you can see, this is not really a computer interaction problem, but rather a religious misunderstanding. But a cultural problem that actually will affect the interaction is the Technical perspective. Sweden per say is one of the countries in the world with the best technology, meaning that we might actually have different assumptions regarding technology and how we use computers, than the company in the outsourcing country. The reason for this might be a lot of different ones but for instance that the country is in general poor and can’t afford to take in new technology and adapt to the new standards. This is a very important point when viewing and discussing human computer interaction.

Technical problems

Some of the technical problems are talked about in the previous topic but there are another perspective than the “cultural technology perspective”, the upcoming issue is however a result of that problem. If you imagine the scenario where a company in Sweden needs a new application to be developed for the new mobile technology. If this was a couple of years ago, let’s say 2004 when 3G was fairly new in Sweden and the company 3 was the only ones having this. What if the company 3 would want to develop a new mobile application using the 3G technology, but the application is so advanced and needs a huge amount of staff members to complete. This is simply too expensive for a new company like this to invest in.

However outsourcing this will help and make it more cost effective. But outsourcing this to a country like India which might not yet have this technology, will cause an inconvenience. This problem will therefore make the project cost much more, since the customer needs to set up a test area and development area for this to be developed and from a strictly computer interaction perspective, who says that the people adapting this technology in India, will follow the same principles as we do here?

We need to keep in mind that different people think different and that different cultures are very different meaning; Applications created by an outsourced company might not be as you would’ve made it yourself. Keep in mind that we are talking about software and / or general computer development and research. With this in mind, how differently would you think that an outsourced company documents, programs and do other tasks differently from how you or your staff would?

This question brings up a huge problem when outsourcing, the technology and the way of adapting it, will cause issues between the parties and as Jeff Atwood³ said “For example, people asking for a clone of ebay for under $500”

A new company in Sweden that might not have any experience working with software development might think that it’s just typing as Jeff Atwood4 talked about. But this is in fact wrong, it’s complicated being a software developer and having to do with a software project might not always be so easy. Thus the applications that developers, managers and other involved staff members use has a quality requirement, they need to be top notch. Using such software and styles might not be widely known, a company might have its own developed software which they do not care to share with other companies. These are also aspects to take in mind when taking on a project which needs outsourcing.

Having discussed the benefits of using outsourcing and the downsides with the applications, culture and other aspects, we need to take a look at a final point on the downside this being, the result of the software product. We can assume that people from ex India are smarter and have another mindset than other countries such as Sweden, they work for less, they know they can easily be replaced, which leads to a harder work style. Now what can possible have to do with Human Computer Interaction and the “samrtness” of a population? Having a usage base that is generally smarter and thinks on a completely different basis will result in your application being made for this crowd. This directly affects the computer interaction, on the visual basis that is, because the hired personnel might interpret how to solve something graphically in a way you would never imagine.

Outsourcing and Open source what makes them similar

Open solutions, the advantage

Open Source is a very broad topic and will not be discussed thoroughly here. But the main purpose of an open application is that the community, being either developers or users can easily get the software and / or its source code; Source code being the logic for how everything behaves.

You could say that all software projects share a specific way of working and this is mainly the structure and documentation of the project. Some projects require this more than others; such as an open source project and an outsourced project. An open source application is often free of use, but there are of course applications that do cost money but are still open source. Either way, the most important part is to help the contributors understanding your business logic and the graphical user interface programming.

This is done by having good documentation and well commented code where you explain all the steps, of course you should never make code unreadable by adding to much comments, then the interaction with the code will just back draft.

When you create an open source project, you force this structured work way from the beginning, there’s no space for spaghetti code or ugly solutions. These parts will be replaced immediately and the programmer will probably not be welcome on this project further on.

This is a big advantage, letting the community contribute to your project and giving you a lot of feedback on it. However, what happens when you want to go global and have a paid for application? The contributors will then require some kind of assets for their work.

The feedback from the community is worth very much on a big project and might help you in long terms; the community is often willing to help out with the most outrageous projects just for fun or for experience. On an outsourced project however, you might not feel that you have the same commitment, however this is because you actually pay for something getting done, and you need to rely on the programmers to do their work. In an open source development you can’t force anyone to do your work.

Marketing and new technology, community help

Let’s play out the scenario where you somehow come up with an idea of a technology or a software that isn’t on the market, but you know that this will help the community a lot in many ways. A project of this sort might be an electric car or a car driven on water, however that has nothing to do with software projects so let’s not talk more about cars.

When you have this kind of idea you either want to make a lot of money or you want to help the public community, but who ever says that money isn’t equal to motivation lies. The main purpose of a project is, in most cases, about making money. So you stand before a dilemma, either you publish your diagrams, project description and other project plans on a public community forum or create a website where you explain your situation. Which then might actually lead to someone else stealing your ideas and benefiting from this which results in them being rich and you being back to square one.

But planning the project well and having good license agreements can help you on the way, you might state that if anyone works on the project they are entitled to their name being written in the EULA or somewhat like that. Keep in mind that an open source project might not be a completely usable alternative for an outsourcing solution but it’s a good point to take when we talk about computer interaction because both type of work requires some common work ways which are good to think about.

Having an open source project which grows big might not only help you development wise but also marketing wise, because having a lot of programmers sharing their thoughts and interface suggestions and so forth will attract a crowd.

And think about it, when having an outsourced project you need to have the following aspects top notch:

  • Project plan
  • Commenting templates
  • Documentation templates
  • Wiki
  • Forums
  • Bug reporting system
  • Source control system

These are just the aspects that really need to be perfectly planned no matter if it’s an open source project and outsource project or a local project on your company. For human computer interaction purposes these need to be top of the line.

Can you yet see another similarity between open source and outsourcing? If not, let’s present it; People around the world contributing to software development. See that as a headline of both Open Source and Outsourcing and the two latter names as an “implementation” of this expression. When having an open source project you never know what culture a contributor comes from or which time it is in his country. This forces an adaptation to new technology and a generic culture understanding.


  1. Wikipedia. Outsourcing. Wikipedia. [Online] 12 08, 2008. [Cited: 12 08, 2008.]

  2. Alriksson, Sofie. Communication problems by using outsourcing international . Communication problems by using outsourcing international . Halmstad, Halmstad, Sweden : Halmstad Högskola, 12 08, 2008.

  3. Atwood, Jeff. Coding Horror. Can You Really Rent a Coder? [Online] 11 23, 2008. [Cited: 12 10, 2008.]

  4. —. Coding Horror. We Are Typists First, Programmers Second. [Online] 11 17, 2008. [Cited: 12 10, 2008.]

  5. David Axlund, VD Mailopages Sweden AB. VD. Karlskrona, 11 20, 2008.

  6. Ekberg, Filip. The Art of Teaching. 05 : 12, 2008.

  7. Masses, Development for the. Development for the Masses. Communication problems in outsourcing. [Online] 2008. [Cited: 12 10, 2008.]

By Filip Ekberg and Göran Petersson

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