International information technology: The importance of the liberal arts for IT

Can your IT department communicate with overseas partners?
Can your IT department communicate with overseas partners?

I work in IT at a large corporation, and this week I had to confront the practical problems of working across multiple languages and cultures. Our company operates on all continents (except Antarctica, as far as I know). The company is divided roughly into four divisions: Far East (eg, China, Malaysia, Japan), Central (eg, Germany, Saudi Arabia, South Africa), South America, and North America.

After speaking to various IT leaders in the regions, I’m beginning to hear the problems they’re experiencing, namely, that the countries of their respective regions are not communicating with one another and that North America is not communicating effectively with them. Creating an IT team among four leaders, one from each area, challenges any desire to align people along the same goals, unless communication and empathy lie at the core of our interactions.

Differences among the regions

In North America, IT is pretty straightforward. We have a service desk overseas, and the rest of IT is in the US. So if someone has a problem, he or she calls the overseas service desk, and if they can’t help, the call or the issue is escalated to the US IT department.  We all conduct IT support in English, except for one of our extended team who works in Spanish.

In region 1, language differences contribute to confusion. (For the sake of discretion, I will not identify the regions in this post, unless the phenomenon is generic to that region.)  One service desk exists for all of this region, and it provides service in English. English, however, is the native language neither of the callers nor of the service desk. The help sessions, therefore, tend to be awkward. Some folks in this region work around the system by calling in to the local country IT organization directly, bypassing the service desk. This workaround helps because it allows people to receive IT help in their native language. Two issues that arise from this system, however, are 1) local IT organizations end up spending their time on individual associates’ problems and not on bigger IT issues and 2) if the issues are serious enough, they have to be escalated to North American IT, where we only speak English, and some of the description and notes on the problem may be in another language.

In region 2, language and culture inhibit communication among groups. Our company has operated longer in this region than in region 1. Through the history of the company, each country has functioned nearly autonomously. As a result, each country has its own way of dealing with IT issues, creating IT “silos” who don’t necessarily work with each other. The general help desk in region 2 is in a single country and follows the rules of the country where it finds itself. On the one hand, the service desk functions as such; they provide decent service. On the other hand, it doesn’t communicate much with other IT organizations, including IT in the US.

Need to overcome these communication barriers

IT in the regions and IT in North America, therefore, do not align. Each country’s citizens would rather speak to their own country’s IT in their own language. North America would like to create a uniform IT policy for multiple reasons.

  • The company could run more efficiently, for example, if the whole company supported a single piece of software for a certain job, rather than different software for different areas, since any software interacts with the rest of the system in unique ways. The IT environment gets unimaginably complicated without uniformity.

  • The regions function better when they communicate with North America IT because when central IT decides for some change in the IT environment, the regions can participate and adapt quickly.

  • When the regions run into problems, such as a big backlog of associate issues, North America can only help when they understand how the regions function and can understand the problem description and notes that they read.

Criteria for success

Communication lies at the center of a solution for my company’s IT woes. If IT were to work efficiently and smoothly for the technology users, we would have to succeed in these two areas:

  1. Associates would be able to receive good help in a language they can understand;
  2. IT would work closely among the regions.

Even though IT is located in North America, it cannot operate as the only center. It must partner with the other regions and must lead the pursuit to fulfilling, effective cooperation. To this end, it has to appreciate:

  • the diversity in each region,
  • the difficulty in communicating constantly in a foreign language, and
  • the consequences of its actions for those outside of North America.

For example, I admitted to our associates in Europe and Asia that while I spent a lot of time in Europe, and so I understand the cultural distinctions between northern and southern Germans, I couldn’t tell the cultural distinctions between Filipinos and Vietnamese people.

I do, however, deeply feel the frustration and exhaustion of communicating entirely in another language. I believe, though, that the vast majority of IT folks in North America have not experienced this madness; receiving, let alone giving, step-by-step advice in another language can drive you crazy.

Through my travels and study of other languages, I have seen the consequences of the actions of North America in other countries. I have discussed the coming of US missionaries to the former Soviet Union in the 90s, for example, and the involvement of the US in Lebanese politics. Folks in Ukraine and Lebanon feel frustrated that they must passively accept the consequences of decisions made in Washington, DC.

Successful cooperation among the regions thus necessitates deep and broad experiences of other cultures and languages outside English-speaking North America.

Liberal arts and IT

Every large corporation will inevitably run into the tensions in IT that I have described in my company. Every human wants to communicate easily in his or her own language and to have a say in decisions that affect them. Empathy with those outside the US and the desire to communicate with them will determine long-term success. Those who work in IT, therefore, cannot limit themselves to a technical education. They must immerse themselves in the liberal arts. They must learn to think outside of their own culture to see how one’s actions affect others, they must avail themselves of opportunities to travel, they must learn another language. Not only will this help the company’s bottom-line by increasing efficiency, but will enrich the lives of those working in IT and the associates they are assisting.

What do ineffective intercultural IT teams cost international corporations?  What are practical ways that we can prepare our IT teams to work with overseas partners?  How can we ready tech-minded people to communicate in difficult situations?

Photo credit: x-ray delta one / Foter / CC BY-SA

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6 thoughts on “International information technology: The importance of the liberal arts for IT

  1. Ironically, perhaps, the term ‘liberal arts’ is already confusing. If an American said (and it will be an American, because I’ve not heard this term used by any native English speakers from other countries) that they have a liberal arts degree (or majored in liberal arts?), the rest of us don’t have a clue what that means, exactly. Art History??? Does it include subjects like sociology and languages (going by your post, I realise that it does)? In the UK, this might correspond to “humanities” and in Spain to “letras”.

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    1. Yes, the liberal arts are pretty much equivalent to the humanities. Sociology would be in the social sciences in the US, which are part of the liberal arts but not necessarily the humanities.

      But if IT folks studied the social sciences instead of the humanities, I’d be just as happy. They would have to study human dynamics and see the role of power in human interactions, and transfer that to how North America deals with the regions. That would definitely move us forward.

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  2. Communication is never just literally language, eh?

    I developed a communication coaching program for a global consulting firm whose universal operating language is English. The main part of the initiative was a simulated client – consultant conversation over a call / web.

    For the regional session with China, I deliberately chose business leaders to play the role of client / coaches in Singapore and Hong Kong who could speak Mandarin however did not highlight this to participants. After the mock call, when the coaching part of the session began and the client/coach switched languages – the participants were amazed and relieved as it was tough for them to conduct the call in English.

    Part of the learning was in setting up these calls, establishing rapport with the client and spending a bit of time getting to know the other person – including determining if there is a language other than English that is most comfortable for BOTH parties.

    All the best in trying to find ways to reduce barriers to effective communication and create an atmosphere of greater cultural awareness. 🙂

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    1. That sounds like a great exercise. Determining what might be the best language for mutual comprehension and comfort is a challenging one. This is really complicated since it involves hundreds of languages.

      In my post, I assumed that each region would need to communicate with countries within itself and with North America. Multiply the problems when region 1 has to communicate with region 2! Oy! I can’t wrap my head around how to smooth these communications.

      Any recommendations?

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  3. Pingback: Create habitats for endangered languages to thrive – Loving Language

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